Series Preview: Nebraska Cornhuskers

The Terps are hot. A 18-3 record in their last 21 games and a return to the top 25 for the first time since the season’s opening week earn any team that adjective. As hot as Maryland (19-8, 5-1 in Big Ten play) has been lately, though, the team has played above even that lofty standard in its weekend series.

In their last 15 weekend games (including Fridays), the Terrapins are 14-1, boasting 3-game sweeps over Bryant, Princeton, and Rutgers. The only setback came at the hands of No. 18 Michigan, a Sunday loss after the Terps had already bested the Wolverines twice.

Maryland will put that stellar weekend record on the line starting Friday against Nebraska (17-10-1, 2-0-1). The two teams will meet for three games at Haymarket Park in Lincoln, Nebraska, with a night game at 7:35 on Friday and a pair of day games at 3:05 and 2:05 on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

Nebraska has been playing well of late, as well, as the Cornhuskers are unbeaten in their last eight games. The only blemish in that stretch is a 1-1 tie with Indiana in a game that ended after 11 innings because Nebraska had to catch a plane home from Bloomington.

The Cornhuskers outscored their opponents by 29 runs in the other seven games of that streak, riding a prolific offense to success. Nebraska has scored 10 runs or more in four of its last 15 games, culminating in a 14-6 drubbing of Creighton in a midweek outing on Tuesday. The ‘Huskers scored 10 runs in the second inning alone and tallied a season-high 19 hits in the victory, before turning around to defeat Omaha on the road the following day.

Four players racked up three hits in the game against Creighton, including shortstop Angelo Altavilla, who has been the Cornhuskers’ best hitter all season. The sophomore is one of the most improved players in the Big Ten. After hitting just .211 in 19 at-bats in 2016, he’s exploded on to the scene this year with a .344/.426/.441 line, and his 18 RBIs are second on the team. Altavilla hits second in Nebraska’s typical lineup and it’s difficult to pitch around him because the hitters after him, outfielder/pitcher Jake Meyers and first baseman Scott Schrieber, have both stuffed the stat sheet this year, as well.

Schrieber is tied for the team lead with three home runs this season while hitting .339. The junior outfielder is a returning first-team All-Big Ten performer after hitting 16 home runs and 10 doubles last season. He leads the Cornhuskers in most counting stats, including RBIs, hits, runs, and total bases, while his .486 slugging percentage is also tops on the team. Meyers, meanwhile, has been a star both at the plate and on the mound for two seasons. The Omaha native led the Cornhuskers in both batting average and ERA in 2016 and has picked up right where he left off in 2017. Hitting predominantly third in the lineup, Meyers has batted .297 with a .385 OBP. His propensity for getting on base has helped him cross the plate 21 times, a number helped along by his work on the basepaths: the junior is a perfect 11-for-11 on stolen base attempts this season.

As a pitcher, Meyers has been one of the best on Nebraska’s staff, but he also forms part of a formidable middle of the ‘Huskers order that will present a challenge for Shaffer, Bloom, and Blohm.

Nebraska’s offense has led the way, but its pitching staff has been good enough to keep it in games even when the offense has a rare off day. The Cornhuskers have tallied a 3.18 team ERA while opposing hitters have batted .249 against them. The starting rotation has been dominant at times, while two relief aces, one right-hander and one left-hander, have anchored the bullpen.

Lefty Jake McSteen has been the best hurler in relief for Nebraska, with a sparkling 1.56 ERA and nearly a strikeout per inning in 17.1 frames over 10 appearances. From the other side, sophomore Robbie Palkert has pitched to a 1.76 ERA and fanned 15 in 15.1 innings. Meanwhile, the Cornuskers’ other two-way player, Ben Miller, has tossed five scoreless innings out of the bullpen while also hitting three home runs and driving in 11.

Starting Pitching Matchup

FRI 7:35 p.m. EST

Jr. RHP Brian Shaffer (4-1, 1.70 ERA) vs. Jr. RHP Jake Hohensee (3-2, 2.43 ERA)

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Shaffer has been nothing short of dominant this season. The 6-foot-5 right-hander leads qualified pitchers in the Big Ten in ERA and is second in the conference in strikeouts with 52 in 47.1 innings. Even better than the whiffs alone is his K/BB ratio, which sits at a sterling 4.7. He’s embraced his role as the team’s ace, and the Terps have won five straight Shaffer starts. In his first two Big Ten starts, he’s pitched 15 innings and surrendered just three runs, striking out 14.

Hohensee missed all of 2016 following Tommy John surgery on his elbow and went nearly two full years between games. He made his first appearance of the season on Feb. 26 against Utah and has since claimed a spot as the Friday starter with consistently solid outings. He’s allowed just a .207 opponents’ batting average and only one home run all season. The junior has shown some of the command issues that sometimes come with Tommy John recovery, walking 15 in 33.1 innings. His last three starts have been very good, as he’s thrown 20.2 innings and given up just five earned runs. His most recent start, against Indiana, was his longest of the season at 7.1 innings. He threw 98 pitches in the 7-3 win.

Starting Pitching Matchup

SAT 3:05 p.m. EST

Jr. RHP Taylor Bloom (3-2, 3.89 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Derek Burkamper (2-2, 3.04 ERA)

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Like Shaffer, it’s been a while since Maryland was on the losing end when Bloom took the mound; the 6-foot junior has pitched the Terps to five straight wins, although he only has three actual wins to show for it. His ERA is a bit higher than his weekend-starting counterparts Shaffer and Tyler Blohm, but much of that damage came in two tough outings against Louisville and LSU in February. Since then, Bloom has thrown 29.1 innings and notched a 2.12 ERA with 18 strikeouts. He’ll look to continue his hot streak when he takes the mound against Burkamper.

The Nebraska right-hander is one of the most experienced pitchers in the Big Ten, having made 12 starts in each of the last two seasons and six more in 2017. He has the best strikeout rate of the three Nebraska starters at 7.4 per nine innings, but he’s only averaged just over four innings in his half-dozen starts. Burkamper’s last time out was a 3-1 win over the Hoosiers in which he threw five innings and allowed a single run. The 6-foot-1 senior was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 20th round of the 2013 MLB Draft, but decided to go to Nebraska instead of turning pro.

Starting Pitching Matchup

SUN 2:05 p.m. EST

Fr. LHP Tyler Blohm (5-2, 2.38 ERA) vs. Jr. LHP Jake Meyers (4-1, 1.96 ERA)

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Blohm has stepped right in as a freshman, claiming his place in the rotation and refusing to let it go. He leads the Terrapins in wins, while striking out 33 hitters in 34 innings. The best indication of how nasty his stuff has been this year might be the .181 opponents’ batting average he’s posted. Significantly, of the contact opposing hitters do generate against him, it’s mostly soft. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound hurler has given up just five extra-base hits, none of which have cleared the fence. His last time out, he threw 95 pitches, surrendering just one run in 5.2 against Rutgers.

Blohm will face a fellow left-hander in jack-of-all-trades Meyers, who has been the Cornhuskers’ best starting pitcher for most of the season. He leads the team with 36.2 innings pitched and his 1.01 WHIP is easily the best on the team. His 1.96 ERA is third in the Big Ten behind Shaffer and Michigan State’s Alex Troop. That figure isn’t a fluke, either, as he posted a 1.42 mark, the second-lowest in Cornhusker history (min. 40 IP), in 2016 while making nine starts. Control is a large part of the reason for Meyers’ success. He doesn’t strike out many–just 23 this season–but issues almost no free passes. He’s walked just six hitters this year, a total that translates to only 1.47 per nine innings.