Three-run seventh inning helps Nebraska defeat Big Ten-leading Michigan in series opener

Three-run seventh inning helps Nebraska defeat Big Ten-leading Michigan in series opener
Nebraska closer Colby Gomes hugs catcher Luke Roskam after beating Michigan in the first game of their three-game series. Gomes, a Millard West graduate, earned his 11th save this season. ELSIE STORMBERG/THE WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — The first bunt try by Alex Henwood caught too much barrel and rolled right to the pitcher. With runners on first and second base, that turned into a forceout at third. Nebraska didn’t score in that fifth inning.

“Coach told me I had to be better on the second one,” Henwood said. “He wasn’t wrong.”

NU’s senior second baseman got another chance in an identical situation with nobody out in the seventh. In a tie game, Henwood pushed the ball up the line. When Michigan starter Karl Kauffmann again tried to go to third, he threw wide of third base and into left field as two runs scored.

One NU coach told Henwood it was the best worst bunt of his career. On Thursday night, it was the spark that led to an electric 5-2 victory and kept the Huskers in play for finishing anywhere between first and sixth in the Big Ten Conference standings.

Matt Waldron found his groove after a wobbly start and made his final outing at Haymarket Park a good one across 6⅔ innings. The three-run seventh ensured it was enough for the Huskers to win a third straight game during a critical stretch in its quest for an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament.

The result pulls Nebraska (27-19, 14-8 Big Ten) within 1½ games of the Wolverines with two to play. NU has the same record as third-place Illinois and Minnesota but loses tiebreakers to both. Indiana, which beat Rutgers on Thursday, is a half game out of the top spot.

Michigan (37-15, 15-6) and Nebraska conclude the regular season with a doubleheader at 3 and 8 p.m. Friday.

“We’ve always believed in ourselves,” Henwood said. “And now this is that playing out.”

Bunting fittingly played a key role in the outcome after three botched attempts earlier in the game. Spencer Schwellenbach couldn’t get one down in the fifth inning with a man on first but still reached on an error. Henwood followed by pushing his sacrifice try too hard.

Schwellenbach, now mired in a 0-for-23 slump, again couldn’t lay one down in the seventh but was later hit by a pitch. That led to Henwood’s moment, and Cam Chick then added a two-out RBI single.

“(Bunting) is an adventure to say the least,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said. “But you know what? This time of year, there’s no style points. We just gotta find a way to win. We won. Move to the next day.”

Waldron looked destined for his fourth straight non-quality start after Michigan scored a pair of early runs and drove up his pitch count. Jordan Nwogu singled on the game’s first offering and scored on a Jordan Brewer single after Waldron issued just his sixth walk of the season. A two-out solo homer to left by No. 9 hitter Ako Thomas made it 2-0 in the second.

But the senior right-hander held Michigan and its Big Ten-leading scoring offense to just three singles over the next five frames. Waldron finished with 104 pitches, giving up six hits and striking out three overall. He walked off the mound in tears knowing his career on the familiar Lincoln mound was over.

“It was joy and it was a little bit of sadness knowing it was the last time,” Waldron said. “But it was a heck of a time out there and I think it was a good one to end on.”

Said Erstad: “He just locked it in and his stuff actually got better. Just a lot of fire. It’s fun to watch him pitch. It’s his last outing here at this field and it’s fitting to see him out there competing like he did.”

Robbie Palkert worked 1⅓ perfect innings and Colby Gomes tossed a scoreless ninth for his 11th save.

Nebraska got to Kauffmann for two runs in the second after singles by Luke Roskam and Joe Acker set the table. Angelo Altavilla followed with an RBI fielder’s choice and Henwood later served a two-strike, two-out RBI single to center.

But the Huskers were caught stealing to end both that inning and the third. They threatened after putting the first two hitters on in the fifth but couldn’t get down a bunt and followed with a flyout and groundout.

Henwood said the Huskers are in a good place mentally as the regular season comes to a close Saturday.

“Bring it on,” Henwood said. “Let’s win two.”

Michigan at Nebraska (DH)

When: 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Where: Haymarket Park

Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM in Nebraska City