FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Shay Schanaman didn’t consider Sunday afternoon among the best starts of his career. His breaking pitches weren’t especially sharp, and his command was only so-so.
But with Nebraska’s season on the line, its normal No. 3 starter did exactly what the Huskers needed to not only survive their first elimination game but save the bullpen for a few hours later in the program’s first regional final appearance in 14 years.
Schanaman provided precious rest for NU relievers with seven innings of four-hit baseball, and his offense clobbered NJIT’s depleted staff in an 18-4 victory at a steamy Baum-Walker Stadium. An eight-run fourth and six-run fifth left little drama inside Baum-Walker beyond watching storm clouds gather beyond right field.
“They weren’t as quick with the trigger to get me out of there and get to the ‘pen, so that was kind of nice,” Schanaman said. “But I’m happy about how it turned out, and I’m glad I was able to do my job.”
Nebraska (33-13) eliminates the fourth-seeded Highlanders and advances to an 8 p.m. final against No. 1 overall seed Arkansas, which topped the Huskers 5-1 a night earlier. Big Red must win and then do so again Monday to continue its season. It will be a daunting task — the Hogs (48-10) have lost consecutive games just once all spring.
Lefty Kyle Perry will get the start for Big Red, though coach Will Bolt said it will be “all hands on deck” as they try to shock the SEC power.
The Big Ten champs set up the rematch after setting season highs in runs (18) and hits (19) in front of a midweek-esque crowd of 2,004. Joe Acker came up a double shy of the cycle in his first career four-hit game and joined Jaxon Hallmark, Cam Chick and Brice Matthews in swatting a home run.
An Acker triple and Luke Roskam RBI groundout in the first put the Huskers ahead, and Acker added a towering solo shot into the left-field bullpen in the third. NJIT answered with a long ball from Matt Cocciadiferro in the fourth to cut the lead to 2-1.
NU broke into the Highlander bullpen in the bottom half, knocking out starting lefty Grant Vurpillat after a plunked batter and a walk. It was the start of sending 12 men to the plate, highlighted by RBI singles from Acker, Hallmark, Spencer Schwellenbach and Griffin Everitt along with a Chick three-run inside-the-park homer on a ball he smashed to left.
Four more Huskers collected run-scoring hits in the fifth, punctuated by a Matthews two-run bomb over the 400-foot sign in center field to balloon the lead to 16-1.
Both teams dipped into their benches the rest of the way. Caleb Feekin and Braxton Bragg tossed the final two innings for Nebraska after Schanaman allowed two runs (one earned) with three walks and five strikeouts over seven frames and 107 pitches. Hallmark homered in the eighth and was among nine Huskers to collect RBIs and 11 to get a hit.
The 18 runs tie the most the Huskers have scored in a postseason game in school history (18 against Eastern Michigan in 2003). NJIT used seven different pitchers, five of whom allowed runs.
“We missed too much in the middle of the plate, and they pretty much showed why they’re a top-20 team and why they won the Big Ten,” NJIT coach Robbie McClellan said. “So hats off to them — they kicked our butt today, and they deserve it.”
Nebraska played the game without Big Ten Freshman of the Year Max Anderson, who suffered a leg injury Saturday night. Matthews made his first career start at third in Anderson’s absence, with Chick manning second base for the first time in a month.
Bolt said Anderson might be available in a pinch-hitting role against Arkansas if needed. That NU gets another shot at the Hogs is a fact not lost on the Huskers, who didn’t play their best Saturday night, walking a season-high 10 and committing two errors.
“These are the games you dream for, the chance to play the No. 1 team in the country, primetime game in front of a big crowd,” Acker said. “This is why you worked as hard as you do. This is why you play the game. Just to get another crack at them is a blessing.”
Acker falls double shy of history
Joe Acker was blissfully unaware until the middle innings that hitting for the cycle was a legitimate possibility. Then a loud-voiced Arkansas fan brought things into perspective.
The fifth-year Nebraska outfielder tripled to start the elimination game against NJIT on Sunday and sent a high blast into the left-field bullpen in the third inning. After an RBI single in the fourth, he needed just a double for the school’s first individual cycle since Steve Edlefsen did it at Iowa in 2006.
Acker heard the news from the stands shortly thereafter.
“I wasn’t even thinking about it, to be honest with you, until (the fan) said something,” Acker said. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, shoot. I am just a double away.’ It probably got the best of me that last at-bat, I was probably a little too antsy in the box, a little too aggressive.”
Acker walked in the fifth, singled in the sixth and grounded into a double play in the eighth in his final attempt.
NU coach Will Bolt said the coaches became aware of Acker’s situation in the middle innings, electing to leave in the 23-year-old while they removed others for rest ahead of the evening tilt against Arkansas. The coach joked that they kept the outfielder in the game despite a “bionic knee” — Acker rehabbed from an offseason knee procedure to return this spring.
“He knew better than to make the baseball gods mad, though, and try to stretch a single into a double,” Bolt said, referring to the sixth-inning single up the middle.
Chick again takes inside track to homer
The 85-mph changeup didn’t fool Cam Chick.
The Nebraska second baseman had already homered once this weekend when he sent a three-run shot to right to spark a comeback against Northeastern on Friday. His encore in Sunday’s elimination game opposite NJIT was much less traditional — an inside-the-park round-tripper that removed any doubt that the Huskers would advance to their first regional final since 2007.
With two men on base, the junior hammered the offering off the left-field wall. As it rolled in front of two fielders, the 5-foot-9, 175-pounder motored around the bases. He sped past third as the cutoff man took the ball, then slid around a swipe tag at home and screamed at the heavens. Just like that, NU led 10-1 in the fourth inning.
“I love watching Chick scoot around the bases,” NU starting pitcher Shay Schanaman said later. “I think that was his second one of the year, but that’s always a good time.”
The native of Columbia, Missouri, also did the deed in the Illinois series in early April. And another Husker, Joe Acker, completed an inside-the-parker against Rutgers. The last such homer came from Jaxon Hallmark in grand-slam fashion against Kansas State in 2019.
Chick is also now randomly tied to 2020 MLB draft pick Casey Martin, who was a third-round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies. The former Arkansas infielder had been the last player to hit a homer without the ball leaving the yard at Baum-Walker Stadium when he did it in 2019.