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Huskers break through in the seventh inning to inch closer to Michigan in Big Ten standings

May 17, 2019

As they played Michigan into the night Thursday, Nebraska’s seniors likely weren’t too worried about what lay ahead of them Friday.

There was enough on the line against the Wolverines — a shot to stay in the Big Ten title race, for one, and improve NU’s NCAA Tournament chances, as well.

Nebraska took another step in the right direction Thursday night with a 5-2 win against the Wolverines in the series opener at Haymarket Park.

Nebraska broke a 2-2 tie in the seventh, scoring three runs on just one hit. It was capped by Cam Chick’s RBI single to right field. It started when Angelo Altavilla walked and Spencer Schwellenbach — in an 0-for-22 slump — was hit by a pitch.

Then Alex Henwood, perhaps Nebraska’s hottest hitter over the last few games, laid down a bunt that Michigan pitcher Karl Kauffmann fielded and threw into left field, allowing Altavilla and Schwellenbach to score and break a 2-2 tie.

Like always, it wasn’t especially pretty. But for this Nebraska team, it was good enough.

“You know what, this time of year, there’s no style points,” NU coach Darin Erstad said after the game. “You’ve just got to find a way to win, we won, and we move on to the next day.”

The play was a near carbon copy of the fifth inning, when Henwood stepped to the plate with runners on first and second and none out, and attempted a bunt that turned into a force out at third.

“Mike Pritchard (a Nebraska graduate manager) actually joked with me, ‘Yhat’s the best, worst bunt of your life,’” Henwood said of his second try. “It’s a game of inches and that’s one that went our way, so I’m not complaining about that.”

The Huskers (27-19, 14-8 Big Ten) pulled to within 1½ games of the Wolverines for first place in the Big Ten standings as the league race stayed tight at the top.

Indiana is a half-game back of Michigan in second place, while Minnesota and Illinois are tied with Nebraska for third. Nebraska can still finish anywhere from first to sixth in the conference.

“We’ve always believed in ourselves, and this is that playing out,” Henwood said. “We’re starting to get a few breaks, starting to swing the bats a little better. Everything’s starting to come around.

“Nothing wrong with getting hot this time of year.”

Senior Matt Waldron did his part, recovering from a slow start to work into the seventh inning. He threw 104 pitches to keep Nebraska in the game after Michigan scored single runs in the first and second innings.

Michigan (37-15, 15-6) came in with the Big Ten’s best batting average and second-most runs scored, but didn’t advance a runner past second base after the second inning.

As he began to step off the Haymarket Park mound for the final time, Angelo Altavilla stopped him, said a few words, and offered a hug and a tap to the top of the head. One senior recognizing another.

“I didn’t think I would tear up at all, but it definitely happened,” Waldron said of coming out of the game. “It was mixed feelings — it was joy and it was kind of a little bit of sadness knowing it was the last time, but it was a heck of a time out there and I think it was a good one to end on.”

Friday will be a long march. There’s a chance for bad weather Saturday, which necessitated the move to a Friday doubleheader. Nebraska and Michigan will play Friday at 3 p.m., then again at 8 p.m. No matter how soon the first game ends, the second won’t start until eight o’clock because it’s being televised by BTN.

Fans can use Friday’s ticket for entry to both games.

Before any baseball, there will be senior day ceremonies for a group that has been through plenty — a Big Ten championship two seasons ago, and a sub-.500 year last season.

“They’ve been through a lot; they’ve won the conference, and we’ve got our teeth kicked in,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said Wednesday. “They’ve seen it all, but they’ve stuck through it and stuck together, and it’s been a pleasure having them around.”

Nebraska’s senior group of Altavilla, Reece Eddins, Nate Fisher, Ethan Frazier, Nolan Hakel, Alex Henwood, Byron Hood, Matt Waldron and Mike Waldron have all had their moments. Some have battled serious injuries, too. There’s been plenty of adversity to go around for the group of nine, five of which are Nebraska natives.

That includes Yutan’s Nate Fisher, who pitched a gem against Arizona State last week to help Nebraska get back on track and will get the start on the mound in Friday’s first game.

“It’s a pretty interesting dynamic of seniors. We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been through some highs and been through some lows, but we’re a bunch of grinders,” Fisher said. “You can’t say we haven’t laid it all out here. It’s been a pretty fun group.”

Fittingly, it was a senior that made the final big play. With freshman Colby Gomes on the mound and Michigan runners at first and second with one out, Altavilla snared a hot shot down the third-base line, stepped on the bag, and fired across the diamond to complete a game-ending double play.

“This is what it’s all about. This is why you do this — why you put all the work in, in the fall. You want the games at the end to mean something. And we’ve been in a situation where they didn’t mean anything, and that’s no fun,” Erstad said. “So this is what it’s all about, and they’re excited, they love to compete, and hopefully we can play some good baseball this weekend and make this thing interesting.”