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The State of Big Ten Baseball

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A dramatic tale featuring a dark red horse.

The Husker Baseball team celebrates clinching the Big Ten championship after defeating Ohio State 9-0 on Sunday afternoon.
@Husker_Baseball Twitter

Hello! Any baseball fans out there?

echo echo echo

Yes, yes, America’s past-time and all of that. I confess I am not world’s most enthusiastic baseball fan, but I enjoy that it’s slow-paced enough that it makes a nice background listen to a variety of chaotic spring activities. As long as the weather is below 80 degrees, I enjoy watching a game live as well - it’s a nice way to get hours of quality time with a friend while also getting the vibe and occasional excitement of live sports.

Nevertheless, if you’ve guessed that I’m only writing about baseball because the Huskers happened to be really good at it this season, you are correct! If you hate Nebraska, you probably won’t enjoy this particular story, but if you like a good underdog tale, this Husker baseball team might be your cup of tea.

Big Ten Baseball and Covid-19

Like everything else, college baseball was impacted by Covid, although as a sport, baseball was probably one of the less-risky sports around given its outdoor nature and relative lack of contact between opposing team members. However, baseball players spit pretty much constantly, so safety remained a concern.

The Big Ten went ahead with baseball season this year, but did not schedule out-of-conference games. This significantly changed the makeup of the season - instead of early-season series, and mid-week matchups with non-conference teams, Big Ten teams would have to get all of their games in against other Big Ten teams. In numbers, this meant moving from ~23 conference games in a normal year to 44 conference games this year.

Most weekends, teams would play in a “pod system” that honestly, I’m still not sure I completely understand. Three teams would compete in a “pod” and play four game apiece, in contrast to the traditional three-game weekend series against one opponent. A few weekends still featured regular series, which meant that teams would face some opponents up to five times (for example, Nebraska played Iowa, Ohio State, Rutgers, and Indiana five times each).

It also meant that the relatively equitable distribution of home games was thrown out the window this year - Nebraska, for their part, played only 12 home games through this weekend, while Indiana has played 19.

Pre-Season Expectations

The Big Ten, while typically fielding a couple of strong teams each year, is not regarded as a power conference for baseball. We can blame it on the snow. Nebraska is usually a decent-to-good team, occasionally breaking into the NCAA tournament, and snagging the Big Ten title in 2017.

The Huskers lost Head Coach Darin Erstad in June 2019 to a surprise retirement, and replaced him with alum Will Bolt. His first season was the definition of mediocre (7-8), but also very brief—that whole pandemic thing cancelled the season.

So, expectations for the Huskers coming into the 2021 season were modest, to say the least. Big Ten coaches did not even have the Huskers in the top six of the pre-season conference voting:

Again, this wasn’t entirely unreasonable, given where the Huskers left off in 2020. And the other teams in this list ended up more or less meeting these same expectations:

Current Big Ten baseball standings on 5/24/21, via bigten.org.

But no one saw the Huskers putting together the season that they did. The pitching was solid, and that combined with a better-than-expected hitting attack that knocked the rest of the conference on its heels. This was, of course, the hope in hiring Bolt, who is known for coaching explosive offenses. But it was also helped by the addition of some great-hitting freshmen, namely Brice Matthews and Omaha-native Max Anderson (who now has a career .341 batting average.) Combined with veterans like Joe Acker, Luke Roskam, and Spencer Schwellenbach, the Huskers boasted a combination of hitting power and base-running speed that made them a constant threat for multi-hit innings. Nebraska has scored more than 10 runs in 13 of their 40 games this seasons.

Things were looking good. Nebraska won seven series in a row, and by late April, were ranked in the national press. But then, things started looking not-so-good, courtesy of Rutgers coming to town.

Were they full of their own press? Hitting an inevitable cool-down? Did Rutgers just have them figured out? Whatever the reason, the Huskers were swept in three games over the first weekend in May by the Scarlet Knights. By the final game of the series, there was no sign of the team fans had grown accustomed to - Rutgers won 6-0, keeping the Huskers scoreless for only the second time in the season.

Rising Again

To the team and coaching staff’s credit, this startling slide didn’t last for long. The Huskers went 9-1 after the Rutgers rout (including blasting the Scarlet Knights 15-5 in New Jersey the next weekend), only dropping one game to then-#17 Indiana.

Coming in to last weekend’s “pod” with Indiana and Ohio State (two other teams in the top half of the conference), there was a sense that the Huskers needed to go at least 2-2, and that 3-1 would be an excellent weekend. Instead, they won all four games, including a 9-0 pasting of Ohio State yesterday to clinch the Big Ten title with one more weekend to go. (It must be noted that in addition to their own stellar performance, they were helped by Maryland getting the better of Michigan to go 2-1 in their series, leaving the Terps and the Wolverines tied for second in the conference.)

Yay!

So the Huskers are your surprise Big Ten Champs, back in the rankings once more:

D1 Baseball:

Huskers - #20

Maryland - #25

Dropped out: Michigan

Baseball America:

Huskers - #19

Collegiate Baseball:

Huskers - #24

Michigan - #26

Nebraska certainly has plenty to be proud of with a surprisingly strong season, and one more weekend to go. They’re playing Michigan, who is likely looking to rebound after a disappointing performance against Maryland. Though the conference title is already safely in Lincoln, the Huskers can gain more positive attention and put an exclamation mark on the regular season with a strong performance against the Wolverines.