LINCOLN — Jesse Wilkening is looking forward to playing baseball with his friends for one more weekend.
The injury-related what-ifs surrounding the Huskers have finally faded into the summer sky. The competitive fire still burns, but the frustration of April struggles has blended into mid-May acceptance that the Huskers probably won’t participate in the Big Ten tournament for the first time since joining the league.
The scenarios that would keep NU from ending its season on the earliest calendar date in nine years? Many players can’t say. They just know winning games would be a good start.
“I haven’t looked at them,” said Wilkening, a junior catcher. “I don’t look at that stuff. I just go out and play.”
Needing to finish among the top eight in the league to advance to postseason play next week in Omaha, 10th-place Nebraska (23-26, 7-12) has a tall task ahead at fifth-place Illinois (29-17, 13-8). It could win two of three and move on if Maryland and Iowa are swept. It could take all three from the Illini and go if both the Terps and Hawkeyes drop their final series.
Otherwise, the Huskers turn to exit interviews, summer ball and — for some — the major league draft in early June.
Coach Darin Erstad said there are positives to take from the past few months. Many underclassmen received experience they wouldn’t have otherwise. Team on-base percentage is better, .371 (98th nationally) after sitting at .364 (133rd) last year. Fielders committed three errors in the past six games. The pitching staff has averaged 2.4 walks in its past 10 games, well below its 3.6 average for the season.
“This game’s built on pitching and defense, and you have to have that to do anything for a consistent period of time,” Erstad said. “Defensively, I was disappointed with how the middle of the season went. I do think that the last month we’ve played better defensively to a level that can win ballgames. We’ve done a better job of limiting the free passes for the most part on the mound recently. So those are things that we’re looking toward the future with.”
Wilkening is an MLB draft candidate and trails only Scott Schreiber among Huskers in batting average (.364), home runs (8) and on-base percentage (.434) along with his team-best 53 RBIs. A 28th-round selection of the Arizona Diamondbacks out of high school in 2015, he said there is plenty to be optimistic about within the program.
Even if the season ends this weekend.
“We developed some good team chemistry as of late,” Wilkening said. “We’re stringing along some good hits here and there. It’s a lot more fun in the dugout. So that’s definitely some building for next year.”