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Indiana vs. Nebraska baseball, 5/12/18

Nebraska third base coach Mike Kirby (left) high-fives Huskers batter Jesse Wilkening after his solo homer in the eighth inning against Indiana on Saturday at Haymarket Park.

FRANCIS GARDLER, JOURNAL STAR

If someone asked you right now to name the hottest hitter on the Nebraska baseball roster, you'd probably give the wrong answer.

It's not Scott Schreiber, who has cemented his name among some of the all-time great hitters in school history.

It's Jesse Wilkening.

The junior catcher, by batting average at least, has swung Nebraska's best bat over the past month-and-a-half.

After another big weekend against Indiana, Wilkening's average since April 1 is .435. That's 38 points higher than Schreiber, who has the same number of hits in eight more at-bats.

It's production that hasn't surprised NU coach Darin Erstad, who leveled some heavy praise for Wilkening earlier this week.

"He's one of the more pure hitters I've seen come through here," Erstad said Tuesday. "I think he's developed a lot of confidence, and his experience has helped him get to where he is. It's always been there; he's just started to put it together."

Wilkening's .364 season average is second on the team behind Schreiber, as are his eight home runs. The Cedar Lake, Indiana, native came into 2018 with a grand total of one homer in each of his first two seasons.

He nearly added a ninth Sunday against Indiana, but his shot to right field with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning was caught at the wall. Had it gone out, Nebraska would have had a series win and a slightly larger margin for error this weekend at Illinois.

"At first I didn't think it was (going out). Then I saw him keep going back to the track and I thought, 'That's got a chance,'" Wilkening said Tuesday. "I kind of played pepper with him all weekend, it seemed like."

The right-handed Wilkening's ability to hit to the opposite field with power has given Nebraska a pair of dangerous bats at the top of the order. Hitting behind Schreiber hasn't hurt, either. When the Huskers face left-handed starting pitchers, those two are No. 1 and No. 2 in the batting order. Against righties, they hit second and third.

The ability of Wilkening to consistently provide Schreiber with protection has allowed the senior to put together one of the best individual seasons in program history.

Wilkening has hit safely in 19 of his past 22 games, with RBIs in 19 of his last 22 contests as well. He has 27 RBIs in that stretch, and had a streak of 12 straight games with an RBI end Sunday. Of his 68 hits this season, 37 have come in the past 22 games.

"He's taking his aggressive swing," Erstad said. "He's been really aggressive in hitter's counts, and just done a great job with two strikes of battling and shifting the field and trying not to pull the baseball with two strikes and still hitting for power."

Wilkening's big numbers have come during a trying season. A bruised shoulder has forced him out of his role as NU's catcher and into the designated hitter spot. Despite that, he's started all 49 of Nebraska's games.

The final three could come this weekend at Illinois. The Huskers sit 10th in the Big Ten standings, and must reach eighth by Saturday to qualify for the conference tournament. The league's top eight teams by winning percentage will play next week at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha.

Maryland and Michigan State are tied for eighth in the conference at 9-11 while the Huskers (23-26, 7-12 Big Ten) are 10th.

Illinois has plenty to play for in its own right. The Illini (28-17, 13-8) can still finish anywhere from second to seventh in the league, and slugger Bren Spillane has the chance to put the finishing touches on a season that will likely see him run away with the Big Ten's player of the year award.

"Very solid ball club," Erstad said. "They've been restocking their roster, and now they're in a position where those guys are older, and they're a very talented team."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or cbasnett@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.

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Husker basketball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

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