LINCOLN — Senior Day began with news that Nebraska’s ace would take the mound, despite sporting three stitches on his throwing hand. It ended with a potential game-saving catch at the left-field wall.
In between, the bats came alive and the bullpen settled in to push the Huskers to an 8-7 victory over Michigan State that clinched their final home series and keeps them in contention for their first regular-season conference baseball title in a dozen years.
In his return from a hand injury — his left palm was spiked during a base-stealing play last Wednesday — lefty Jake Meyers struggled to find a rhythm on the mound. His 2 2⁄3 innings marked the shortest of the junior’s 21 career starts, and he left after the Spartans produced five runs — four earned — on 66 pitches. The team’s regular leadoff man and center fielder didn’t hit all weekend.
Meyers said the injury didn’t affect his velocity or pitch grips, though he struggled to keep the ball low in the strike zone and hit his target. But he kept a big-picture perspective while watching most of the game from an unfamiliar perch in the dugout.
“Dudes picked me up and the Huskers got a win,” Meyers said. “That’s all that matters.”
Seniors Jake Schleppenbach went 4 for 4 and Ben Miller drove in three runs with a two-hit day in their last games Haymarket Park. Freshman Luke Roskam’s two-out RBI double in the seventh inning proved to be the difference, with his shot into the left-field corner bringing in the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Miller all the way from first base.
“Great crowd, great win against a good opponent,” said Schleppenbach, a Lincoln Pius X grad. “We just battled all day and came out on top, so that was pretty awesome for us.”
With a Spartan on first in the ninth, Chad Luensmann entered for a third straight day and coaxed a 6-4-3 double play. Marty Bechina then sent a 0-2 pitch to the left-field fence, where Mojo Hagge made a jumping catch about a foot below the top of the padding to send the crowd of 4,648 into a frenzy.
“Not as much hair flying around since he shaved his hair off, so that’s good,” coach Darin Erstad said of Hagge. “You make plays and you’ve got a chance to win — he’s made a couple big ones for us. …To go out there in those conditions with the sun and the wind and in that situation, to be able to play a play, that’s pretty spectacular.”
Nebraska (32-17-1, 14-6-1) stays atop the conference standings with a three-game series at last-place Penn State next weekend remaining. It still needs Minnesota to drop one of its final five league contests to win its first Big Ten title by percentage points.
The bright finish didn’t appear likely early. Working at a more deliberate pace than usual, Meyers walked the ninth batter of the season in the first inning but escaped a runners-at-the-corners jam. MSU (27-21, 9-12) tagged him for a run in the second on a Royce Ando RBI hit set up by a throwing error and single to center.
A four-run MSU third knocked the Omaha Westside grad from the game. Chad Roskelly and Dan Durkin homered to left field on consecutive pitches. A sacrifice fly and a double followed before Ando singled in another run off reliever Robbie Palkert to put the visitors ahead 5-3.
The Spartans opened their biggest lead at 6-3 in the fourth, when Matt Byars guided a bloop hit just in front of a sliding Scott Schreiber in right field to plate Bryce Kelley, who led off with a single.
Erstad said NU made the decision to start Meyers based on how the hurler was feeling. As long as the cut stayed closed, coaches would defer to his judgment.
“You could tell he wasn’t as sharp as he normally is, but what do you expect? He probably had to make some adjustments with his grips and stuff,” Erstad said. “But just one of those things where you think about how many times he’s picked us up over the course of the season on Sundays, the least we could do is help him out one time from an offensive standpoint.”
Nebraska got to MSU starter Ethan Landon early and often, forcing the right-handed junior out after 1 1⁄3 innings and 38 pitches. Miller’s two-out RBI single in the first gave the Huskers an early lead, and they took a 3-1 edge in the second on run-scoring hits by Brison Cronenbold and Angelo Altavilla.
Lefty reliever Joe Mockbee — appearing for a third straight game — ended that rally and recorded a 1-2-3 third frame before the Huskers rang up a three-run fourth. A Schleppenbach double, dropped popup at second base and walk preceded Schreiber’s two-run, ground-rule double to right-center with the bases loaded. Miller’s sacrifice fly knotted the game 6-6.
NU collected two more runs off Mockbee in the sixth to move ahead 8-6. With Schreiber at third on a double and throwing error with two outs, Miller singled him home. Miller scored shortly after when Luke Roskam poked a double into the left-field corner.
Michigan State closed to 8-7 in the seventh off reliever Jake McSteen, who allowed a leadoff single and an RBI double from Zack McGuire. NU’s lefty worked around two Spartan singles for a scoreless eighth after picking off a runner and inducing a 5-4-3 double play before giving way to Luensmann in the ninth.
The roller-coaster weekend concluded with Nebraska claiming its sixth Big Ten series in seven tries this season. Schreiber said weathering that kind of drama is invaluable as the Huskers forge closer to the postseason.
“It’s good to have a couple of those games where you have to deal with adversity there — being up and down, lead changes,” Schreiber said. “Having that experience is big, but hopefully we can just carry this momentum into next weekend.”