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Hold on to your caps. The finish to the Big Ten baseball season is about to get very interesting
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HUSKER BASEBALL

Hold on to your caps. The finish to the Big Ten baseball season is about to get very interesting

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Maryland vs. Nebraska, 4.11

The Nebraska bench celebrates a Jake Bunz strikeout during a game against Maryland on April 11 at Haymarket Park.

Parker Gabriel and Chris Basnett talk about the lull in the college football world before a wild June of recruiting visits and workouts begins. In baseball, Spencer Schwellenbach is rising up MLB Draft boards while the Huskers found out Friday that they will not play host to a regional in the NCAA Tournament. 

Call it luck, or coincidence, or whatever you want, but the race for the Big Ten title couldn't be set up for a more intriguing finish as the regular season enters its final two weeks.

The top four teams in the league standings — Nebraska, Indiana, Michigan, and Maryland — will all play each other in some combination over the coming two weeks. Over the next six (or seven, depending on the team) games, the Big Ten will get exactly what it wanted when it produced a widely criticized conference-only schedule: a true champion.

The Huskers, Hoosiers, Wolverines, and Terrapins are all within two games of each other. Iowa lurks four games back, with six games remaining against teams below .500.

Nebraska (25-11) leads the way, and gets two games against second-place Indiana (24-12) this weekend during a four-game pod in Bloomington, Indiana, that also includes Ohio State. 

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While those three are doing battle, Michigan (25-13), only percentage points behind Indiana for second, will host Maryland (24-14) for a three-game set. The Terrapins, since losing two of three games against Nebraska in Lincoln, have gone 14-2 to get into the conversation.

The following week will see Nebraska host Michigan while Indiana travels to Maryland. Fascination abounds. As a player or coach, it might be easy to peek at how other games are going while preparing to play.

That can't happen, NU coach Will Bolt said last week. 

"That's got to continue to be our message and that's going to continue to be our message is, let's not worry about the things we can't control," Bolt said. "We can't control what other teams do, we can't control anything up to this point other than us, and going out and playing the style of baseball that we know helps us be successful."

After a stunning home sweep at the hands of Rutgers, Nebraska has won five of its last six games to climb back to the top of the standings. Michigan took two of three against Indiana over the weekend to tighten things up even more.

The upcoming schedule alone would be enough to whet the appetite of any college baseball fan. But there's another, perhaps even bigger, question that hangs like a cloud over the championship race.

When it comes to NCAA Tournament berths, there are no guarantees as to how many Big Ten teams get in. The Big Ten deciding to play a league-only slate — the only power conference in the country to do so — has hamstrung its teams when it comes to RPI, one of the main factors in helping determine the at-large field for the 64-team event.

As of Monday night, Nebraska's RPI of 67 was the best in the league. Iowa was next at 76. None of the other three contenders were in the top 80: Indiana sat at 82, Maryland at 93, and Michigan at 95.

Not exactly a rock-solid fallback plan should things come down to that. The Big Ten has in recent years been a five-bid league when it gets to tournament time. What will that number be this year? One? Two? More?

It remains to be seen if the NCAA set a precedent by selecting just three Big Ten teams for the 64-team NCAA softball field. Like baseball, Big Ten softball played a conference-only schedule. Like baseball, none of the league's softball teams were chosen as regional hosts. Michigan softball, with a gaudy 36-6 record, will play all its tournament games on the road.

But, as Bolt said, none of the Big Ten's contenders can do much about that besides continue to win.

"You just can't get caught up in what's going on around you," Bolt said. "You just can't. Because you make it more than it should be."

What it is, is a potentially thrilling title chase with enormous implications outside the conference. Buckle up.

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

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Husker men's basketball/baseball 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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