BLOOMINGTON, IN- Coming into the season, Nebraska looked the part of a Big Ten title contender, thanks in large part to their returning pitching and an offense led by a veteran spark plug-type player in Jake Schleppenbach and power bat Ben Miller, among others. The hope for the Huskers was that they would pile up wins in a bunch of low-scoring games featuring Schleppenbach getting on base and Miller knocking him in with regularity.
Coming into Big Ten play, the pitching has mostly held up its end of the bargain, particularly the starting rotation of Jake Hohensee, Derek Burkamper, and Jake Meyers, but the offense has largely been stuck in neutral, with Schleppenbach and Miller among the players struggling the most.
On Saturday, in the Cornhuskers’ 3-1 win over the Indiana Hoosiers, both players showed signs of breaking out of prolonged slumps, at the time when the team most needs it.
After coming into the weekend hitting .176 with a homer and four RBI, Miller’s potential breakout weekend actually began on Friday night in the team’s 7-3 win, when he had two hits, including a solo homer and an RBI single in the eighth inning, which broke a 3-3 tie.
On Saturday, he came through again. After Jake Meyers reached on a fielder’s choice, stole second base, and then advanced to third on a sacrifice fly, Miller took a 3-1 pitch from Indiana starting pitcher Brian Hobbie and shot it into left field for an RBI single.
Later in the game, he also beat the shift for his second hit of the game. The Hoosiers had the big lefty shaded with second baseman Tony Butler playing in shallow right field, but rather than trying to force the ball into the teeth of the defense, Miller took a pitch from Cal Krueger and hit it right back up the middle for another single.
It was yet another two-hit day for Miller, and after the first two games of this series, his average is back above the Mendoza Line at .205, and he’s nearly doubled the RBI total he had coming into the weekend.
Schleppenbach had a tough first game of the series, taking an 0-for-4 and lowering his average to .169 on the year, but not only did he come alive with a couple of hits and a walk on Saturday, he also did something he’d never done in a Nebraska uniform.
Leading off the top of the seventh inning, the senior stepped to the plate and launched a home run to right, the first of his career in more than 425 at-bats, giving his team the 3-1 lead by which they would eventually win the game.
Despite their struggles coming into the series, breaking out was something head coach Darin Erstad simply took as an inevitability.
“They’ve got a lot of experience,” Erstad said. “Part of the season you’re going to struggle, and when it’s at the beginning, it gets magnified. I know it’s going to come, so I really don’t worry about it. At the end of the year, it’s going to be there.”
On this day, the Cornhuskers also got a big lift from another familiar face in Matt Waldron. Last season, Waldron held down a role in the weekend rotation, going 7-3 with a 2.87 ERA. This season, he’s been in something of a swingman role, as he’s started five games as the team’s primary midweek starter and relieved in three others, including in Saturday’s game.
He came in at a pivotal point in the game. Nebraska had just pushed their lead to 2-0 thanks to Miller’s RBI single, but Indiana was threatening in the bottom of the sixth. Matt Gorski led off the frame with a walk and Craig Dedelow drove him in with a double into the left-center gap. Luke Miller then singled into right field, moving Dedelow to third with no one out and driving Nebraska starter Burkamper from the game.
Enter Matt Waldron.
The next hitter, Matt Lloyd, hit the ball hard, but it was right at Ben Miller at first base, who snared it and then turned around and tagged out Luke Miller for the double play. Then, he struck out Logan Sowers swinging, and suddenly, the Huskers were out of the inning without any further damage. It was only the sixth inning, but that felt like the biggest moment of the ballgame at the time, and that turned out to be the case.
Not done breaking the collective spirit of the Hoosiers, Waldron came back out for the seventh and eighth innings and set the opposition down with little incident. When it was all said and done, he had thrown three innings, giving up no hits and no runs with no walks and three strikeouts. The only thing that kept him from tossing three perfect innings was a fielding error by his brother, Mike Waldron, at third base leading off the seventh inning.
“He can do it all,” said Erstad of Matt Waldron. “We’ve had to mix and match some stuff for different reasons, but he’s started a Friday regional for us and he’s also pitched out of the ‘pen and been very effective, so we’re using him in a couple of different roles and we’re just trying to maximize our pieces.”
Given his proven ability to be both an effective starter and a fireman out of the bullpen, as Erstad alluded to, Waldron becomes a valuable piece for Nebraska to have, particularly if they find themselves back in the postseason come June.
And although they might have gotten off to a bit of a slow start in 2017, with the way they’ve played in Bloomington this weekend, they appear to be well on their way.