LINCOLN — Nebraska stumbled in yet another series finale at home, ending its regular season on a sour note and missing out on a chance at a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament.
Michigan, which needed a win Saturday to secure a spot in the league tournament, took a quick 4-0 lead and then pulled away with six runs in the fifth inning before piling on late. The Wolverines won easily 19-9, unfazed by NU's home crowd of 4,164.
Nebraska (25-28, 15-9 Big Ten) would have been the No. 2 seed in the six-team field with a win Saturday, but Michigan played like the team with more on the line, totaling more runs and hits (23) than any NU opponent in five years.
“Sometimes you're the bug and sometimes you're the windshield,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said. “It's pretty evident what we were.”
The Huskers will get their chance at redemption this week. They'll open the Big Ten tournament Wednesday in Minneapolis as the No. 3 seed against these same Wolverines (29-25, 14-10). First pitch is set for 3:35 p.m.
Nebraska did rally to tie Saturday's game at 4-4 with four two-out runs in the bottom of the third inning. But a Husker offense that had accounted for 16 hits in three of its last four games couldn't keep up with the Wolverines.
Michigan had little trouble solving NU's top reliever, Dylan Vogt. After senior Bryan Peters threw wildly toward second base on what could have been an inning-ending double play in the fifth, the Wolverines used four straight hits against Vogt to break it open.
Their first 21 hits Saturday were singles, of all kinds. Bloops, unpredictably high hoppers and seeing-eye dribblers. Four others were gloved on the infield, but not quickly enough to retire the runner at first.
By the time Michigan had its first extra-base hit of the day — a two-run double by freshman Jacob Cronenworth in the eighth — the game was well in hand at 16-5. The Huskers used eight pitchers, none of whom lasted longer than two innings.
“I think it's well-documented that our pitching depth isn't quite where it needs to be,” Erstad said.
Making matters worse for NU, No. 1 starter Christian DeLeon (elbow soreness) wasn't available in the series against Michigan. Erstad hopes to have DeLeon back for the conference tournament. Reliever Brandon Pierce (back) couldn't pitch, either, and he may not return at all this year, Erstad said.
Without a first-round bye in Minneapolis, Nebraska would have to play — at minimum — four games in four days to win a championship. A tourney title is likely the only way NU would earn a spot in an NCAA regional.
“We're basically fighting for our lives now,” Erstad said.
The Huskers certainly had chances to avoid this scenario. The top two seeds in the Big Ten tournament, Indiana and Ohio State, both came to Lincoln this year. And both left with series wins, as NU surrendered control of the deciding game early on in each instance.
Not counting the Huskers' too-little-too-late rallies in the ninth, they were outscored 36-6 in their last three league series finales at home. They finished 6-6 against Big Ten opponents at home this year.
But the challenge is ahead of NU now, Erstad said. Rebounding after disappointment is not a concern with this team, he said.
“Our guys, they've been through a lot,” Erstad said. “They've fought through adversity. They've responded many, many times.”
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