TEMPE, Ariz. — A dominant pitching debut and strong offensive finish secured a victory in the season opener for Nebraska on Friday night.
In his first collegiate start, senior Luis Alvarado struck out nine batters in 4 2/3 innings and eight Huskers reached base at least twice in an 8-3 win over UC Riverside at Tempe Diablo Stadium. First baseman Luke Roskam finished 2 for 3 with three RBIs and catcher Jesse Wilkening also drove in a pair as NU began a four-game weekend in the desert on a positive note.
Nebraska (1-0) returns to action Saturday at 1 p.m. against Washington State (0-1) before a rematch with UC Riverside (1-1) at 5.
Alvarado, a power right-hander drafted in the 13th round by the Seattle Mariners last summer, suffocated opposing hitters for most of his 69 pitches. Last year’s closer had set a career high in strikeouts by the second inning and finished one shy of Nebraska’s season high by a starter all of last year (Jake Hohensee punched out 10 Rutgers hitters last May). Alvarado scattered four singles, a walk and a hit batsman.
“You could just see he was in control,” NU coach Darin Erstad said during his postgame radio interview. “And let’s just face it: When we come out here, everybody’s nervous. You haven’t been outside. And once he started doing what he did, I think it really settled our guys down because his stuff was pretty sharp.”
UC Riverside got to the Puerto Rico native when second baseman Cody Sporrer connected for an RBI single with two outs in the fifth. Reliever Matt Waldron (1 1/3 innings, two runs, one earned) picked up the win and Robbie Palkert earned a save with three one-hit innings.
“I don’t think we could have asked it to go much better as far as what we needed to do (in relief),” Erstad said.
The Huskers stole six bases — their most in a game since 2013 after finishing last season with 43 total — and consistently worked at-bats against a Highlanders group that defeated Washington State 8-1 earlier Friday. Starter Hazahel Quijada lasted 4 1/3 innings and allowed three runs before NU put away the game against the bullpen.
Erstad said the fact that Husker hitters finished with more walks (six) than strikeouts (four) is a good sign for an offense that has been the least consistent part of the program in recent seasons. The Big Red accomplished that feat just four times in 58 games last spring.
“Like I told the guys, ‘We have to find ways to produce runs,’ ” Erstad said. “We’re not going to sit here and smash balls, although today I think we might have had three or four home runs (in a smaller ballpark).”
Nebraska never trailed and broke up a scoreless game in the fourth inning on a Wilkening RBI single. The lead extended to 4-1 in the fifth when an infield fielding error opened the door for a Scott Schreiber sacrifice fly and a Roskam run-scoring shot up the middle. Angelo Altavilla also drove home a run during the rally.
Riverside drew within 4-3 in the top of the sixth. The Highlanders turned four singles and a Husker error into a pair of runs off Waldron.
But then the Big Red busted things open in the seventh. Roskam followed a Mojo Hagge single and Schreiber double with a two-run triple, and Wilkening brought him in with an RBI hit. Shortstop Brison Cronenbold capped the scoring with a sacrifice fly to right.
Also of note, junior second baseman Alex Henwood started for the first time as a collegian and picked up Nebraska’s first hit of 2018 — and his second career knock in six career at-bats. He also walked, was hit by a pitch and stole two bases out of the No. 8 spot.