LINCOLN — There are vagaries of baseball Darin Erstad can stomach. Outs on the basepaths made by aggressive runners, for example. Or the ebbs and flows of offenses from game to game.
But when the Nebraska baseball coach saw his first commandment being violated in the ninth inning of a sloppy 6-2 loss to Northwestern State on Saturday afternoon, he had enough. Twice the Huskers couldn’t handle bunts, which led to three unearned runs that sucked any drama from the series opener at a chilly Haymarket Park that felt even colder after the final out.
“I told them, the No. 1 thing we write down is we don’t get beat by bunting,” Erstad said. “We take that away. And to see that happen is very frustrating.”
A pair of defensive plays Nebraska couldn’t make in the seventh inning gave the Demons their first lead after NU starting pitcher Luis Alvarado went five strong frames and left with a 2-1 advantage. The Huskers (10-8) didn’t seriously threaten after falling behind despite leaving at least one runner on base in every inning.
Nebraska had been 7-1 this season and 176-18 under Erstad when leading after the sixth. This time, more shaky defense and bullpen struggles conspired against the Huskers as they dropped their fifth series opener in six tries this spring.
The Huskers, who are unbeaten in its past 15 Sunday games, will try to avoid dropping their fourth game in Lincoln during an eight-game homestand when the rain-shortened two-game series concludes starting at 11:05 a.m.
“Our performance (Sunday) will say a lot about who we are as a team,” NU sophomore outfielder Mojo Hagge said. “So I think coming out (Sunday), playing a solid defensive game and hitting all over the ball field, I think it will really show who we are.
“… It’s just trying to figure out how to deliver that first punch. And once we figure that out, I think things will go well for us.”
Saturday’s contest featured 29 hits — 28 of them singles — on a brisk and windy midafternoon. The turning point came in the seventh, when a one-out fly ball to right-center bounced off and between a pair of Nebraska outfielders for an RBI double following a leadoff hit. With two away, second baseman Alex Henwood couldn’t scoop and throw a slow roller up the middle as a Demon scored from third to put Northwestern State up for the first time at 3-2.
Northwestern State (11-7) added three unearned insurance runs in an ugly top of the ninth made possible when first baseman Zac Repinski and reliever Nate Fisher collided on a popped up sacrifice bunt. A bunt hit by No. 9 hitter Sam Taylor down the third base line set up a David Fry sac fly and two-RBI single by No. 3 hitter Luke Watson.
“Bunt defense, we work on that more than anything,” Erstad said. “It’s just disappointing to see that falter like it did. We’re making too many mistakes from time to time and it’s costing us.”
Husker hitters pounded NWSU starter Nathan Jones early and often, beginning when leadoff hitter Hagge lined sharply back to the pitcher. After Repinski and Angelo Altavilla singled, Scott Schreiber lined a ball into left to put Nebraska ahead 1-0.
Three more singles in the second inning — highlighted by a Hagge RBI hit — turned into another Nebraska run and a 2-0 lead.
But the Huskers didn’t score again and ended 3 of 13 with runners in scoring position. A bases-loaded, one-out situation in the fourth fizzled when Jaxon Hallmark was thrown out at home on a pitch that leaked away from the plate and Repinski struck out looking. They stranded two more in the fifth when Hallmark grounded out following two-out knocks by Jesse Wilkening and Luke Roskam.
Jones lasted a season-low 3 1/3 innings, but three relievers pitched a shutout the rest of the way for the squad from central Louisiana.
“We had 14 hits and we still only put up two runs,” said Hagge, who was thrown out at third to end the sixth while trying to stretch a Repinski single into two bases. “So it’s just executing what we need to and we’ll see how things go (Sunday). Come out with a fire.”
Alvarado went five innings — his second-shortest outing in his five starts — while allowing seven hits, striking out three and walking none on 71 pitches. Erstad said the ace could have gone longer but said he wanted to keep Alvarado fresh for the Big Ten opener next weekend at home against Minnesota. With Friday’s rainout pushing his start to Saturday, the senior will have one fewer day to recover.
The move also turned into an opportunity for Fisher, who had been scratched from the rotation for this series after starting the previous two weekends. But the junior lefty gave up the lead in the seventh and ultimately allowed five runs (two earned) on seven hits in 3 2/3 relief innings to take the loss.
“Nate’s going to have to find a way to get some people out,” Erstad said. “Gotta get outs.”
Hagge led the offense with a 3-for-5 day, and Schreiber went 2 for 5 to extend his recent hot streak to 12 for his past 21.
But the defensive problems continued. Nebraska committed at least one error for a 12th time in its past 14 games and entered the weekend 189th nationally in fielding percentage. Erstad said some of those struggles are a result of trying to put the best offensive lineup together or breaking in inexperienced players.
“It’s one of those things where we gotta hit the reset button and get back on them,” Erstad said. “But I just remind them of the foundation of things we do.”