Alex Henwood, Aaron Palensky homer in sweep of Purdue and tie Huskers’ best Big Ten start

LINCOLN — Alex Henwood laughed at the notion that he could be a home run hitter. That’s just not his game.

The senior second baseman felt compelled to explain his second career long ball — “It was just a windy day,” he said of his solo shot to right field in the fifth inning Sunday.

But the other guy to homer in Nebraska’s 9-5 series-sweeping victory over Purdue?

Nobody on the team is more locked in than Aaron Palensky.

On a warm afternoon when Nebraska’s offense pounded Purdue pitching early, the sophomore outfielder and offseason transfer from Southeast Community College cleaned up the most with a 4-for-5, three-RBI day. The Papillion-La Vista South graduate lined his first career homer to left center — a two-run shot in the first inning — and later added a run-scoring single.

Palensky extended his team-best hitting streak to 11 games, during which he’s batting .409 (18 for 44) with nine runs scored and nine RBIs.

“He brings a steady confidence to the lineup,” Henwood said. “He’s a guy who’s early in the lineup who we know is going to get the job done. He finds a lot of barrels, finds a lot of gaps. He’s somebody that I’m very glad is on our team and not the other team.”

Beyond the pair of home runs, a six-run fourth proved critical as Nebraska (17-9, 7-2 Big Ten) moved to 8-0 at Haymarket Park and tied its best conference start in eight years. With the bases loaded and one out, a Carter Cross grounder to shortstop became three runs on a low throw to second base that rolled into right field. Run-scoring hits from Palensky, Keegan Watson and Luke Roskam followed.

NU sent 11 to the plate to go ahead 8-3, and knocked out Purdue starter Ryan Beard to the delight of a home crowd of 5,346.

“Smelled blood in the water right there,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said.

The offense made up for an imperfect day overall that included a pair of errors and starter Reece Eddins laboring through five innings and 82 pitches. The senior righty allowed single runs in four of his five innings while striking out three and walking none. A relief corps of Paul Tillotson, Shay Schanaman and Colby Gomes combined to surrender one run in the final four innings.

But while Eddins wasn’t dominant, he also avoided an extended rally time and again.

“The biggest deal of the whole thing was, if you look on the scoreboard, there’s all 1s,” Erstad said. “We didn’t let them get any big inning. We minimized damage. And when you do that, you got a chance.”

Purdue (10-20, 4-4) led 2-1 after Bryce Bonner hit an RBI double in the first and drove in a run on a groundout in the third. A team with two total homers entering Sunday got solo shots from Ryan Howe (fourth inning) and Zac Fascia (sixth). A wild pitch brought in a run in the fifth.

Palensky’s first-inning homer came on a high fastball and ensured he would hit safely in 24 of 26 games this spring. There’s been an adjustment to Division I pitchers, he said. They throw a few miles per hour faster and locate a little better. But he’s not surprised with his production, and is optimistic about the rest of the season.

Nebraska — which has swept multiple league foes for the first time in three seasons and moves into a second-place tie with Indiana in the Big Ten standings — feels the same way.

“I’m definitely happy with how I’m doing,” Palensky said. “Now, there’s always more that you can do. So just stay hungry, stay humble.”