OMAHA — Last year’s eight-team Big Ten Tournament field didn’t include Nebraska.
Thanks to an extended pitching performance by Robbie Palkert, the Huskers, and their fans, are enjoying an extended stay this time around.
After getting clocked by Michigan earlier in the day, Nebraska bounced back with a 7-3 win against the Wolverines in front of 11,000-plus fans on Saturday night at TD Ameritrade Park. The win puts the Huskers in Sunday’s final against either Minnesota or Ohio State.
Because of a league curfew, Minnesota and Ohio State — they were scheduled to play Saturday night — now will play at 11 a.m. Sunday. The championship game will follow an hour later, at approximately 3 p.m.
For the first time since 2014 — and for the third time under Darin Erstad — the fifth-seeded Huskers (31-21) are in the title game.
For the Huskers, a tournament championship would be another box checked, Erstad said.
“Is it an end-all, be-all for me? No,” he said. “But I’m all about those experiences for those teams, and I want things that they’re going to talk about five, 10, 20 years from now. I’d love for them to have that opportunity, and I don’t know what’s going to happen but I know those boys are going to fight until the end.”
Second-seeded Michigan (41-18) racked up 19 hits in an 18-8 win against NU earlier Saturday. But the combination of Kyle Perry and Palkert helped cool the Wolverine bats in the rematch.
Perry, making his first appearance since April 26, pitched 3 1/3 innings and left with a 2-1 lead. The freshman gave way to Palkert, who outside of a rickety fifth inning, was sharp in 5 1/3 innings of work.
“It starts with Kyle Perry,” Palkert said. “He gave us that first zero and I think that’s the biggest hump to get over. The game before earlier today, we couldn’t get out of the first inning. So to be able to get out of that first inning, get over that first hump, we all kind of looked at each other and (went), ‘Oh, yeah, we’re a good ball club, too.”
Before Saturday, Palkert's longest career outing was 3 2/3 innings against Purdue earlier this season.
Palkert got two outs in the ninth before Michigan loaded the bases. Erstad turned to freshman Colby Gomes, who got an infield fly out to end the game.
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Palkert, a junior right-hander, scattered four hits and walked two while throwing 95 pitches. He ended the eighth with a strikeout of Joe Donovan — Palkert's fifth strikeout of the game — and a fist pump.
So what was working for Palkert?
“Nothing was working, actually,” he said. “That’s the surprising part. Nothing was going well. I couldn’t locate a fastball early in the count, I couldn’t throw a changeup early in the count, I was getting behind. I was pulling things to the glove side, I was cutting fastballs.
“Nate (Fisher) and I talked before the game and it’s all a mentality. You may not have your best stuff. It’s all upstairs though. You got to compete.”
In front of a lively and red-clad crowd, the Huskers struck for two runs in the third, and broke a 3-3 tie in the sixth with two more runs.
Nebraska’s two-run third was sparked by the wheels of Cam Chick with two outs. The freshman broke for third base on a ball hit by Angelo Altavilla to the deep part of the infield, and beat Michigan third baseman Blake Nelson to the bag.
Chick’s effort paid off. Spencer Schwellenbach, the next batter, laced a two-run single to left, scoring Chick and Aaron Palensky.
Nebraska manufactured another run in the fifth on an RBI single to left by Schwellenbach on a 3-2 count. After Michigan tied the game at 3-3 in the bottom of the fifth, NU responded with two runs in the sixth.
It was 6-3 when Chick scored on a throwing error in the eighth, and the cushion was pushed to four when Alex Henwood drew a four-pitch walk later in the inning.
“It starts on the mound (with) Kyle Perry, Robbie, and Colby did a great job,” Erstad said. “Typical Husker baseball, 2019 version, scratch and claw. Bunch of walks, bunch of strikeouts and just find a way to win.”
Schwellenbach, who homered against the Wolverines in the morning, finished with three hits in the nightcap.