LINCOLN — No offense to Creighton or UNO, but Nebraska players are happy to have a pair of nothing-to-gain midweek games behind them.
Providing a drastic change of pace — both literally and metaphorically — is an oft-running Maryland team that comes to Haymarket Park for a three-game weekend showdown that will have a lasting impact on the top of the Big Ten standings.
“Yeah, I mean, I’m not going to lie — it is a little bit different (of a feel),” said Jake Meyers, who will continue his routine of pitching Sunday after playing center field Friday and Saturday. “But we approach the game the same way and we control what we can control and we play Nebraska baseball.”
That sets up what should be an intriguing game-within-the-games when the Huskers (17-10-1, 2-0-1 Big Ten) and No. 24 Terrapins (19-8, 5-1) meet as league foes for the second time beginning Friday night at 6:35. Maryland ranks fourth nationally in steals per game (2.15) and owns 58 total swipes in 71 attempts this season. Twelve players have taken an extra base, including 10 apiece by designated hitter Will Watson and outfielder Zach Jancarski.
“They’re obviously being very aggressive,” NU coach Darin Erstad said. “It doesn’t really matter the situation.”
By contrast, NU has allowed 13 steals to opponents in a league-low 19 tries. Base runners will be of extra importance for weekend starters Jake Hohensee, Derek Burkamper and Meyers, who have only allowed more than three earned runs once in 18 combined starts.
Aside from keeping hitters off base entirely — “That’s a good place to start,” Erstad joked — the coach said the Terps’ speed puts more emphasis on fundamentals Nebraska stresses anyway. Varying hold lengths before throwing home. Making competitive pickoff tries. Executing timely pitchouts.
The Huskers have been effective in key moments while rolling up an eight-game unbeaten streak that included two wins and a tie at Indiana last weekend. Hohensee said the difference has been a more relaxed approach of late. Players have taken to throwing water around the dugout after Nebraska scores, and celebrations are louder.
Despite season-ending injuries to freshman Paul Tillotson (shoulder) and Reece Eddins (elbow), the bullpen has also come on strong of late. Following Eddins’ final outing against Kansas State early last week, NU relievers have combined to allow one earned run in 252⁄3 innings, not counting the five runs reserve Mitch Steinhoff surrendered in his season debut against Creighton with a big lead Tuesday.
Overall, Nebraska’s team ERA of 3.18 ranks second in the Big Ten. The pitching has stayed reliable while the hitting has picked up in recent games.
“We’re just playing ball,” Hohensee said. “We’re playing the way we’re supposed to, and we’re all having fun. When everybody comes together — we got a good group of guys here — we’re all having fun at one time and everything’s getting put together.”
Maryland was voted by Big Ten coaches as the preseason favorite and brings a weekend starting rotation of Brian Shaffer, Taylor Bloom and Tyler Blohm that took two of three from No. 18 Michigan two weeks ago. Offensively, first baseman Brandon Gum paces the league with a .494 on-base percentage while outfielder Marty Costes pairs a .358 batting average with six home runs.
The Terps have won 18 of their last 21 games after starting 1-5. Perhaps their biggest weakness is defensively, with 36 errors in 27 games. They overcame five errors Tuesday in a 12-11 comeback win over Richmond.
“We’re not scared of anybody,” Hohensee said. “This is our house, we’re going to protect it and hopefully (have) a pretty good series this weekend.”
Iowa (2-1 league mark) at home and Minnesota (6-0) on the road represent NU’s next two weekend foes in a front-loaded Big Ten schedule. The Huskers won all four of their Big Ten home series last year and are again near the top of the standings after wobbling to a 13-10 start in the nonconference season.
“I have liked this team’s ability to fight through some tough times,” Erstad said. “We’ve shown some grit, which is a good thing. They definitely have kept it together when maybe a mistake’s been made and found a way out of it. That’s a very good quality to have.”
» Freshman left-hander Connor Curry (4.91 ERA in 71⁄3 IP) won’t be available this weekend. Erstad said the reliever is battling “arm soreness.”
» Nebraska is 8-2 at home while Maryland is 8-7 away from Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium.
» The nine homers allowed by NU pitching are the fewest in the Big Ten. Maryland is next with 11 given up.
» In the teams’ only meeting in 2015, Maryland swept the series by scores of 8-3, 8-2 and 6-5.