Two seasons ago, Nebraska started the year 7-6 before running off 16 wins in 17 games to creep into the top 25. The Huskers then got swept by No. 16 Maryland - beginning an 11-16 skid to end the year and miss the NCAA tournament completely.
Fast forward to 2017: NU starts 5-8, wins 12 of 15 games, including a tie, and now welcomes No. 24 Maryland to Hawks Field for the Big Ten home opener this weekend.
Safe to say, it’s a big series. And one that could determine the direction NU heads from here.
“That’s a solid opponent,” coach Darin Erstad said. “They can really pitch, and offensively, they’ve got a lot of action on the basepaths with some power. It’s going to be a great challenge. We’re excited.”
Nebraska won twice with a tie on the road against Indiana last week before beating both Creighton and Omaha in the mid-week. Heading into the early part of April, NU is playing its best baseball of the season, and has an opportunity to make some serious noise against the Terps this weekend.
Regardless, Nebraska’s business-like attitude hasn’t wavered.
“When you start putting pressure or more significance on one game, you bring in different emotions,” Erstad said. “All of a sudden, in other games you won’t have the same type of focus. We’re going to approach every game exactly the same. We know we have to take care of our business, prepare the right way, and go out there and do what we’re capable of doing.”
For the neutral fan, this weekend’s pitching schedule, regardless of importance, is reason enough to care. April 7, it’s Nebraska’s Jake Hohensee (3-2, 2.43 ERA) and Maryland’s Brian Shaffer (4-1, 1.70 ERA). Shaffer’s 1.70 ERA is the lowest among qualified pitchers in the Big Ten, while leading the conference with 47.2 innings and sitting second with 52 strikeouts.
Beyond those two, Nebraska’s Derek Burkamper (2-2, 3.04 ERA) and Maryland’s Taylor Bloom (3-2, 3.89 ERA) will go in the second game, while Jake Meyers (4-1, 1.96 ERA) and Tyler Blohm (5-2, 2.38 ERA) will pitch in the finale.
Much of the execution lies with the NU offense. Nebraska scored 14 runs in the mid-week win over Creighton and scored 11 runs in last week’s win over Kansas State. But if you really wanted to nitpick, offensive inconsistency is the only red flag the Huskers carry into the weekend, sitting middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten for most offensive categories.
Still, there are exceptions. Scott Schreiber carries a career-long 19-game on-base streak and a team-high .495 slugging percentage going into the weekend. After a tough start, Jake Meyers continues to get better at the plate, and even Ben Miller has shown signs of improvement. To win a series like this, the key players have to play well.
Maryland isn’t much different, either. Marty Costes leads the Terps with 1.037 OPS and six home runs to go along with 18 RBIs - second most in the lineup - while Brandon Gum has a .494 on-base percentage and 90 plate appearances.
Maryland also shows tremendous plate discipline as a team with 144 walks and 166 runs on 233 hits in 27 games altogether. When they have an opportunity, the Terrapins capitalize.
“We’ve played teams like this already this season,” Erstad said. “If you make mistakes, teams will take advantage of them. There are just things you have to be able to do when you face quality teams.”