Huskers have set winning pace in Big Ten race, don’t want to slow down on road trip to Iowa

The Huskers are off to their best start in eight years in the Big Ten. “I think we’re right where we need to be right now,” said Angelo Altavilla, the senior shortstop. “I definitely feel like we’re in the driver’s seat.”

LINCOLN — Angelo Altavilla did a little numbers breakdown this week. Sure enough, his gut feeling was right.

This Nebraska baseball team is doing better at the midpoint of the Big Ten schedule than the 2017 version. That squad won the regular-season title and went to the NCAA tournament.

“I think we’re right where we need to be right now,” said Altavilla, the senior shortstop. “I definitely feel like we’re in the driver’s seat.”

A little more research reveals that the Huskers (21-11, 10-2 Big Ten) are off to their best start in eight years in their new league. The last time they started hotter through 12 conference games — in the Big 12 in 2008 — was also the last time Haymarket Park hosted an NCAA regional.

And while Nebraska leads second-place Indiana by 1½ games, its next opponent is the one that has proved most difficult for NU to beat in recent years. Iowa (21-14, 7-5) has claimed 10 of the past 13 against the Huskers and has yet to lose a series to its neighbor to the west since coach Rick Heller took over in 2014.

Iowa, considered among the leading college programs in analytics, lost two assistants to the New York Yankees organization in the offseason. It has five straight seasons of 30-plus wins.

“They’re really well coached,” NU coach Darin Erstad said. “They’re fundamentally sound. They do their homework. You know that you’re going to have to execute at a high level. Any little thing that you have a weakness (in), they’re going to expose it. That’s coaching, and their players are executing it.”

Saturday’s game will be broadcast on BTN, and the Hawkeyes will likely draw more fans by having football players sign autographs beforehand.

So how does Nebraska block out the external noise? Altavilla points to 2017 and a team that always responded well after losses. Don’t get complacent.

Erstad said his view of rivalries is the same now as when he was a star athlete at Nebraska in the 1990s and in the major leagues.

“To be completely honest with you, I hated everybody,” Erstad said. “So it didn’t really matter.”

What the coach has liked is the consistently high-level baseball NU has played in recent weeks. The staff ERA of 1.92 in Big Ten games is best in the league and the 19 walks allowed are lowest, even though most opponents have played fewer games. In conference play, NU also sets the standard in stolen bases (19 in 21 tries) and is within six percentage points of No. 1 in fielding percentage (.978).

There’s an intangible trait to this team as well, Erstad said.

The 2017 champion Huskers won seven series but swept only one. This group has three sweeps in four tries, and its only series loss came on a pair of walk-offs at Minnesota. That’s where loving the grind of baseball makes an impact.

“It’s a good quality to have,” Erstad said. “And we’re going to need to continue to do that because we gotta get as many wins as we can.”

Nebraska at Iowa

Where: Banks Field, Iowa City, Iowa

Radio: Husker Sports Network

Video: BTN Plus Friday and Sunday; BTN Saturday

6:05 p.m. Friday: RH Matt Waldron (5-0, 1.76 ERA) vs. RH Cole McDonald (3-3, 3.96)

2:05 p.m. Saturday: LH Nate Fisher (4-1, 2.28) vs. LH Cam Baumann (2-2, 5.31)

1:05 p.m. Sunday: RH Reece Eddins (3-2, 4.37) RH Grant Judkins (4-3, 1.95)

Scouting Nebraska (21-11, 10-2 Big Ten): NU is in the midst of playing eight of nine games away from Haymarket Park. The Huskers are 12-4 in true road contests this spring, including a sweep at Penn State last weekend. ... Clutch hitting has eluded NU of late. Batters went a combined 7 for their last 52 (.135) with runners in scoring position before a 4-for-12 showing at UNO on Wednesday. While Aaron Palensky (.344 batting average) and Joe Acker (.326) continue to pace the Huskers offensively, no one has been hotter than Luke Roskam. The junior catcher is up to .281 and owns a team-best on-base streak of 19 games. He walked three times Tuesday against Kansas State and went 4 for 4 Wednesday. ... Nebraska starting pitching continues to be outstanding in league play. Waldron, Fisher and Eddins have a combined earned-run average of 1.72 in 78 1/3 innings. That includes 55 hits allowed and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 62-12.

Scouting Iowa (21-14, 7-5): The Hawkeyes have won their past three league series against Illinois, Rutgers and Purdue after Indiana swept them in late March. ... The program lost its pitching and hitting coaches in January when both accepted offers to join the minor league staff of the New York Yankees organization. Coach Rick Heller replaced them with former major league pitcher Tom Gorzellany (volunteer pitching assistant) and longtime associate Robin Lund (hitting). ... Six hitters have started at least 29 games for Iowa while no one else has begun more than 18. The regulars include Austin Martin (.339 average), Izaya Fullard (.280), Tanner Wetrich (.264, five homers), Mitchell Boe (.256), Ben Norman (.256, 26 RBIs) and Chris Whelan (.253). ... Iowa's earned-run average in the Big Ten is 4.73, which ranks ninth. But scoring has been its biggest struggle, with an average of 5.1 runs per game (214th nationally).

Dugout chatter: Since Heller took over at Iowa in 2014, the Hawkeyes are the only team Nebraska has not taken a series from. ... NU sophomore left-hander Connor Curry (arm injury) has started a throwing program, Erstad said. The Huskers are "hopeful" the Lincoln Southeast grad can return by the Big Ten tournament in late May. ... Nebraska will almost certainly not make up postponed games against North Dakota State and UNO, Erstad said. The team explored adding another game with Creighton, traveling to Mississippi State to make up that canceled game at the Frisco Classic and even going to Florida State or Oklahoma. "I just don't see where we're going to be able to fit any of those in," Erstad said.

Evan Bland covers Nebraska football, baseball and other sports for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @EvanBlandOWH.

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