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May 24, 2012

NU pounds Penn State for first Big Ten tournament win

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Ryan Hander's second pitch of Thursday's elimination game against Penn State was a changeup that caught a bit too much of the plate and PSU leadoff hitter Sean Deegan deposited it in the right-field sits.

After watching NU's pitchers get battered around by Michigan State on Wednesday, Hander couldn't afford to linger on the mistake. He pushed his personal reset button.

"I just regrouped myself and said, 'Here it goes. It's pitch one again,'" Hander said. "I knew my team needed me at that point. I just did everything in my power to throw strikes and give us a chance to win."

The junior did just that, giving up just two runs over 6.1 innings and the offense came to life in the middle innings to lift NU to a 12-3 victory, the Huskers' first win in the Big Ten tournament.

All season long, coach Darin Erstad has searched for reliable starting pitching. After watching his original weekend rotation falter, he turned to less proven guys who have, for the most part, come through in big spots, and Hander was no exception Thursday.

"Fortunately, Ryan stepped up a few weeks ago or I wouldn't be sitting here," Erstad said at the postgame press conference. "I'd be sitting at my desk at the computer trying to find different players. But he took advantage of that opportunity and ran with it."

Hander's start wasn't without some rough points. The Nittany Lions had runners on second and third with one out in the second and two men on with two outs in the third. Both times Hander wiggled out of the jam.

The escapes seemed to energize the Husker offense, which got off to a sluggish start against Penn State starter Steven Hill. Pat Kelly had an RBI single in the fourth to tie the game and the bats took off from there, scoring 11 runs over the next three innings to open up a large advantage.

The Huskers amassed the runs with a combination of well-executed bunts (NU had three consecutive bunt singles in the sixth) and hit-and-runs, something that Erstad has stressed all year. The little things were especially important against Hill, who threw a no-hitter earlier this season.

"You get greedy against those guys, you're in trouble," Erstad said. "You're just not going to consistently string hits together against guys like that, so you have to be able to execute bunts and hit-and-runs. We executed the small-game excellent today and that's what you have to do against good pitching."

With the offense humming, Hander settled down and did his part. Though relievers Tyler King and Dylan Vogt were both warming up for much of the middle innings, neither would be needed. Tyler Niederklein and Jeff Stovall took care of the final 2.2 innings to secure the win.

All year long, the Huskers have responded to adversity, coming up with big plays and victories when they appear to be in the most trouble. Every game is a must-win at this point, starting tomorrow at 11:05 CT. Should NU win, it would play again at 2:35.

"It's that roller coaster that I've been trying to get away from since day one," Erstad said. "Your back is against the wall and you respond to adversity, but then there's a letdown. Then your back is against the wall again and there's another letdown. It's hard to have that as motivation. In this situation, it resets every game. Our back is against the wall so I don't think there's going to be that inconsistent approach."

Around the horn

***The Huskers faced a scary moment in the ninth inning when Rich Sanguinetti reached base on an error but went down grabbing his leg after avoiding the first baseman on a play at the bag.

The Nebraska coaches first thought the center fielder might have injured his knee, but Erstad said after the game it appears to simply be a calf cramp.

"We'll have to evaluate him and see where he's at," Erstad said. "He's walking around so hopefully that's a good sign and we have his services tomorrow."

***Richard Stock's hitting streak reached 20 games with his second-inning single. He became the second Husker to have a streak of 20 or more games this year (Michael Pritchard had a 25-game streak earlier).

***The start was the longest outing of Hander's career.



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