LINCOLN — Nebraska's players hope the lessons learned while navigating a tough schedule will help when they're trying to solve three of the Big Ten's top starting pitchers.
The Huskers have already faced four opponents that rank in the top nine nationally in team ERA, and now they'll have to contend with Big Ten-leading Minnesota's rotation.
Left-hander Tom Windle, right-hander Alec Crawford and left-hander DJ Snelten are the reasons the Gophers' longest losing streak is two.
They each rank in the top 10 in opponent batting average during league play, allowing more than two earned runs in just two of their 13 conference starts. The trio's pitched through at least the seventh inning in Minnesota's last seven Big Ten games.
But NU hitters know what it's like to face the talented arms of Arkansas, Texas, Cal State Fullerton and Indiana. And that should help them adjust and react to what they'll see in Minneapolis starting Friday. That's the hope, anyway.
“We faced a lot of those types of pitchers earlier in the year,” sophomore second baseman Pat Kelly said. “We'll watch film on them, just like we do any other guy, and stick to our approach. We don't prepare differently. We know we can hit those guys.”
It might just be the key to a critical series.
The Huskers (21-25, 12-6) are tied with Ohio State (33-15, 14-7) for third place in the Big Ten. Illinois (28-15, 9-9), in seventh place, is three games back. Only the top six teams get a bid to the conference tournament.
Minnesota (28-16, 11-4) has yet to lose a weekend series in league action. With the Gophers' starting pitching, it's not hard to see why.
Minnesota is 27-3 when its opponent scores three runs or fewer. The Gophers entered Thursday ranked 21st nationally in team ERA (2.80) and 12th in hits allowed per nine innings (7.49). Windle, a potential first-round selection in June's MLB draft, is the ace, but Crawford and Snelten have been just as effective.
“Their three starters could beat anybody on any given day, and I'm not just talking in our conference — I'm talking in the country,” NU coach Darin Erstad said. “That's how good they are.”
It adds importance to NU's ability to execute on the mound and defensively, Erstad said.
“Give our offense a chance,” he said.
But the Huskers can't get rattled or overzealous at the plate, either. Nebraska's aggressive hitters sometimes struggle to extend at-bats, a key to tiring out efficient starting pitchers.
NU is 3-9 in games when an opposing starter throws seven innings or more, and two of those wins came against a struggling Purdue team.
There were encouraging signs in a 10-2 loss against No. 16 Indiana — Blake Headley worked a 10-pitch at-bat in the second inning, Austin Darby and Rich Sanguinetti each saw seven pitches once and Chad Christensen took 12 pitches before a seventh-inning single.
The only problem: They didn't start squaring up fastballs off Hoosier starter Aaron Slegers until the ninth inning.
“It's not an excuse — like, well, we battled, so it's OK,” Sanguinetti said. “We were off, but we were battling, which is a good thing. We just need that spark to get us going.”
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