Angelo Altavilla slid into third base and screamed to the sky. Spencer Schwellenbach delivered a big hit with a roaring partisan crowd on its feet. Shouts of “Go Big Red!” echoed through TD Ameritrade Park.
Nebraska enjoyed moment after moment in its return to the Big Ten baseball tournament and Omaha. By the time the late-night affair Wednesday bled into early morning, the Huskers were celebrating an 8-2 win over Minnesota that marked a big first step in reversing a dismal recent history at the event.
“From right in the middle of the first inning, we were ready to go,” Altavilla said. “It was almost game over.”
Altavilla’s two-run triple to the wall in right-center field keyed a three-run first inning. Schwellenbach’s bases-loaded double to the same spot was part of a five-run third as the Huskers knocked Minnesota starter Patrick Fredrickson from the game. Both left-side infielders collected three RBIs in the nightcap of the tourney’s opening day.
Most of the production was unnecessary for senior right-hander Matt Waldron, who gave Nebraska 7⅓ low-stress innings on 121 pitches. Waldron — a notable omission from all-conference teams this week — scattered six singles, walked none and struck out a career-high-tying nine. Outside of a hit batter that led to Jordan Kozicky’s RBI single in the second and a pair of singles in the eighth, the starter didn’t allow a Gopher to reach second base.
The soft-spoken 22-year-old out of Omaha Westside downplayed his effort other than admitting he stayed “locked in.” Minnesota hitters, though, marveled at his three-pitch mix of offerings that dotted the strike zone and had late movement.
“If you can change eye level with all three pitches, it’s pretty tough,” Kozicky said. “We just had a hard time making our adjustments throughout the game.”
Said Minnesota coach John Anderson: “Hard to get any momentum on offense when you have a young man pitching like he did tonight.”
Waldron’s nine strikeouts put him in fourth place on NU’s all-time strikeout list with 239. He passed Joba Chamberlain and John Lepley.
The victory is Nebraska’s second in nine tries at the Big Ten’s postseason event dating back to 2014. It puts the fifth-seeded Huskers (29-20) into a winners bracket game Thursday at 9 p.m. against No. 8 seed Iowa, which toppled top-seeded Indiana 4-2 earlier in the day. The matchup will likely be a rematch of starters from April 20, when the Hawkeyes beat NU 17-9.
With Nebraska besting the defending league tourney champ, every lower seed won the opening day of the event for the first time since it expanded to eight teams in 2014.
The Huskers pounded Fredrickson on Wednesday much like they did in a 10-1 victory March 31. Mojo Hagge worked a nine-pitch walk to open the game, and a dropped ball in center field set the stage for Altavilla’s triple before Joe Acker drove him in with a sacrifice fly.
Anderson said Fredrickson struggled with his command after missing most of April with an injury. Nebraska coach Darin Erstad saw good action from the right-hander’s pitches even if it wasn’t to the standard he set last season as the league’s pitcher of the year and freshman of the year.
“Normally he’s putting people away in those situations,” Erstad said. “So if he’s making those mistakes, we have to take advantage of them.”
NU batted around in the third. Altavilla smoked an RBI single to right-center on the seventh pitch of his at-bat. Gunner Hellstrom added a run-scoring single to left. Schwellenbach then capped the rally by hammering a two-out, full-count offering deep into the night to plate three.
Fredrickson lasted 2⅔ innings, allowing eight runs (six earned) along with four hits and two walks on 80 pitches. But Minnesota relievers kept the deficit there after the Schwellenbach blow, retiring 12 straight and 19 of the last 23.
After the glamorous moments early, a late show of toughness breathed a little more life into a Nebraska team that has won six of its past eight contests. When infielder Alex Henwood dove to second base trying to double off a runner in the eighth, he hurt a shoulder that caused him to miss a stretch of games earlier this season.
Instead of coming out, Henwood told coaches he was having surgery after the season anyway. He popped his shoulder back into socket and remained at second.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever cried on a baseball field but I almost shed a tear,” Erstad said. “… I just kind of smiled and walked away. That’s what it’s all about. These are my kind of guys.”
Big Ten Tournament: Nebraska vs. Iowa
When: 8 p.m.
Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha
Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM in Nebraska City