LINCOLN — Keegan Watson arrived at Haymarket Park not sure if or when he would play. Lately, the Nebraska sophomore has just been focused on getting healthy.
Watson, an outfielder, isn’t sure if he’s dealing with a hip flexor or a groin injury, but he knows explosive movements can be painful. Couple that with the reality that coaches told him pitching wasn’t an option this year, and it’s been a spring of transition for the Indiana native.
“Whenever you’re called upon, it is expected that you perform,” Watson said. “It’s pretty important to just stay locked in.”
Watson did, and smashed a key three-run home run in his second start of the spring. The Huskers shook off a brief deficit in the seventh inning to best Air Force 7-6 in their long-awaited and wet home opener Tuesday evening.
Nebraska — just 3-7 in midweek games last year — didn’t need any of the ready-made excuses that would have come with an early loss. Yes, it was the Huskers’ first time stepping onto their own field since last October. A few calls went against them, including an apparent double play in the ninth inning that officials waved off. Ace reliever Chad Luensmann entered and left the game without throwing an official pitch between the sixth and seventh when a cut on his finger opened up.
And yet the Huskers (7-7) didn’t play like a team coming off a nine-day, weather-related layoff. Trailing by one run, they tied the game in the seventh when Luke Roskam took a bases-loaded pitch off the leg and went up for good after Joe Acker lined a sacrifice fly to right. Relievers Ben Klenke and Colby Gomes kept Air Force (9-6) scoreless from there.
“Not terrible,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said. “… To fight through that and have some adversity today with the weather and a tough call there in the ninth inning on a double-play possibility and finding a way to get it done, that’s good.”
Nebraska survived a shaky bullpen effort to claim its first midweek game of the spring. Spencer Schwellenbach and Aaron Palensky logged three hits apiece — Palensky finished a home run shy of the cycle — and starter Reece Eddins spun three scoreless innings in a pitching bright spot.
“We got a lot of fighters on this team,” said Palensky, whose breath was visible in the cool, misty air. “We punch them, they punch back. We could have folded, but we got right back on it.”
The Huskers’ lone error didn’t hurt them in the eighth thanks to some good fortune. With a Falcon on second base and two outs, a ball off the glove of third baseman Angelo Altavilla hit an umpire and stayed on the infield to preserve a one-run NU lead.
Robbie Palkert (one earned run allowed in one inning) picked up the win, and Gomes took the save amid less-than-ideal conditions that pushed back the start time one hour.
“At first (the infield) was kind of shaky,” said Schwellenbach, a shortstop. “The part that wasn’t muddy was like concrete. And you really couldn’t water the field because the muddy part would get even more muddy. We kind of had to fight through it.”
Nebraska broke a scoreless game against Norris graduate and true freshman Zach Argo in the fourth inning. A walk and a single set up Gomes for an RBI single before Watson swatted a 2-0 pitch into the right-field bullpen for his second career home run to stake the hosts to a 4-0 lead.
Argo, a righty, lasted 3⅓ frames and struck out four.
The teams traded scores in the fifth, with Air Force scoring on a Christian Gambale RBI groundout and a Nic Ready double. NU answered when Palensky tripled with two outs and came in on a dropped popup by the shortstop in shallow center field.
Three walks fueled a three-run sixth that pushed the Falcons even at 5-all.
Eddins was crisp across three shutout innings that required just 39 pitches. He allowed two hits and one walk while striking out three before Air Force got to relievers Mike Waldron (two earned runs in one inning) and Paul Tillotson (three in 1⅓).
The Falcons briefly took the lead in the seventh when Palkert uncorked a wild pitch with the bases loaded.
The teams complete the two-game series Wednesday at 1:35 p.m., with NU starting freshman Millard South product Kyle Perry. Erstad will manage the game with this weekend’s Big Ten-opening series against Michigan State in mind.
“(Wednesday) you’re gonna see some faces you haven’t seen very often,” Erstad said. “So we’re gonna need some guys to step up.”