When the Big Ten’s two most prominent baseball teams got together in Lincoln to close out an unprecedented regular season over Memorial Day weekend, it quickly became apparent the series would be defined by pitching. The up-and-comer, Nebraska, prevailed, with its two best pitchers, both likely in their final appearance at Haymarket Park, delivering a stunning prelude and a satisfying benediction to worshipful crowds who gathered to pay homage to their conference champions.
The Cornhuskers (31-12) took two of three from the Big Ten establishment, the 27-17 Michigan Wolverines. The 2019 College World Series finalists had been mathematically eliminated by NU the previous weekend when it swept four games from Indiana and Ohio State in Bloomington. This was a final opportunity for the 2021 Huskers to give the home crowd something to remember them by.
The specter of the coronavirus pandemic hovered over a season in which the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors — trusting in nobody’s COVID-19 protocols but its own — both artificially curtailed by banning nonconference games, and artificially extended by creating a conference slate of more than 40 games to compensate. Because of the unique circumstances they were achieved under, Nebraska’s 31 regular-season conference victories are a college baseball record that’s likely to stand the test of time, made more impressive because just 15 were home games.
Pitchers dominated from the outset. Nebraska All-Big Ten lefthander Cade Povich started Friday’s opener with an immaculate first inning, striking out three Wolverines on nine pitches. Povich, who outdueled fellow all-conference selection Steve Hajjar to win his sixth game in seven decisions, is a homegrown junior from Bellevue West High School who played one season at South Mountain Community College in Phoenix and followed newly hired Will Bolt back to Nebraska last year. Povich pitched seven shutout innings, retiring the first 10 batters he faced and striking out nine, as Nebraska prevailed, 1-0, on the strength of senior Luke Roskam’s ground-ball single that plated Spencer Schwellenbach in the sixth inning.
Schwellenbach, the Huskers’ do-everything junior shortstop and closer from Saginaw, Michigan, on Sunday became the first Husker to be named Big Ten Player of the Year. He clinched the finale when he struck out Danny Zimmerman to slam the door on a belated Wolverine rally, nailing down the 5-3 victory with his ninth save.
Sandwiched between the two Nebraska wins, Michigan sophomore righthander Cameron Weston delivered a powerful shutdown performance in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, which was arranged at the last minute because the weather forecast called for Sunday rain. Weston allowed just four hits and struck out four over seven innings, teaming up with reliever Willie Weiss to shut out Nebraska, 2-0.
Although promising news about COVID-19 vaccination progress prompted the COP/C to lift its initial “immediate-family-only” attendance regulations soon after the season began, most Big Ten schools clung to the status quo and never reopened to the general public. Nebraska was the notable exception, opening its ballpark in March to 50% capacity with masked fans, eventually dropping the mask mandate and relaxing capacity restrictions in response to city health department directives.
More than 5,000 fans showed up for a noon first pitch on an overcast, chilly Friday, and a conference-record 7,650 turned out in the sunshine of Saturday’s twin bill, creating an NCAA regional tournament atmosphere that should help both teams when the real thing gets underway during the first weekend in June.