LINCOLN — Nebraska’s done with the most rigorous portion of its schedule, but the Huskers still might need to learn one more lesson from that tough stretch.
Staying sharp for a full game against the nation’s elite teams requires mental precision. And it’s something that Nebraska (6-13) has struggled to maintain during the season’s first six weeks. In nine of the Huskers’ 13 losses, they were within two runs, tied or leading after six innings.
But they have been locked in for spurts. Now the players are trying to build off that and carry it into league play, which begins Friday.
The Huskers’ struggle to maintain focus may be more difficult in a league overlooked — often justifiably — for its baseball. Opponents may lack name recognition or powerhouse status, but Nebraska can’t afford to relax.
“That’s another great challenge for our guys,” NU coach Darin Erstad said. “It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. You play your game regardless of how intense the stakes are.”
The good news: Erstad said he hasn’t yet had to criticize his players for “their effort and attitude.”
But Nebraska’s already missed some opportunities against teams perceived to be of similar talent and skill.
The Huskers blew a 3-1 lead at USC (8-13) during the season’s first weekend. They were swept by Texas (12-8). They dropped two of three at Louisiana Tech (9-14).
And next up is surging Illinois (13-4), an on-paper peer of the Huskers, who were picked by the Big Ten coaches to finish second behind No. 22 Indiana.
“We’re going to treat it like any other team,” said NU junior pitcher Christian DeLeon. “(We expect) good competition. ... But we’re hungry (for a win).”
The Illini missed the Big Ten tournament last year and were picked to finish sixth in the league standings this season.
But they have won six straight games and 12 of 13, powered by the return of outfielder Jordan Parr and ace Kevin Johnson (both late-round draft picks who turned down MLB contracts). Their aggressive baserunning — Illinois ranks 27th nationally with 37 stolen bases — could be problematic for the Huskers, who’ve gunned down just 31 percent of potential base stealers.
“It’s pretty much jailbreak on the bases,” Erstad said.
Perhaps the biggest concern this weekend for Nebraska is Illinois’ efficiency and execution late in games. The Illini are 11-2 when scoring first and 9-0 when leading after seven innings. They’ve won all three of their extra-inning games.
Meanwhile, that’s when the Huskers have struggled most.
“Being able to handle that pressure, the magnitude of the moment ... that’s something that we’re going through in real time right now,” Erstad said.
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