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May 25, 2014

Huskers fall 7-4 to Hoosiers in Big Ten title game

Darin Erstad saw some things in the Nebraska dugout that surprised him during the Big Ten Tournament title game against Indiana. The pressure had reached a new level, and there was more slamming of bats, tossing of helmets and words being uttered under players' breath.

With a crowd of nearly 20,000 on hand and a conference title on the line, the Huskers gave the top-seeded Hoosiers a run for their money. But NU couldn't come through with the clutch hits and eventually fell 8-4. Nebraska (40-19) finished 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position.

"You have to remind them that it's OK to breathe," Erstad said. "There were a few times I was wondering if anyone was going to faint in our dugout from not breathing. Those are great learning moments for them and great experiences for the future that are going to make them stronger.

"They all want it so bad and it's an intense situation. It's a great learning experience for them, how to handle that stuff."

The Huskers stranded nine runners on base and gave themselves chances to make a run at the Hoosiers, but fell a bit short with each opportunity. NU's one hit with runners in scoring position was a bunt single by Michael Pritchard in the third that loaded the bases.

"We put ourselves in position to score runs, but we just couldn't get the big hit," Tanner Lubach said. "That's what it came down to in the end - we couldn't get the big hit and they did."

Indiana's offense, which led the Big Ten in doubles, home runs, slugging percentage and on-base percentage, attacked NU starter Austin Christensen immediately. The Hoosiers scored twice in the first and added another in the second, taking of advantage of a pair of Christensen walks.

Christensen and Bob Greco combined to keep IU off the board in the third and fourth frames, allowing Nebraska to tie the game in the fifth. Ryan Boldt led off with a single, Jake Placzek walked and Pritchard bunted for a hit to load the bases. Pat Kelly then hit a ground ball to the second baseman, who had the ball go through his legs and allowed two runs to score. Blake Headley then grounded into a double play, but it brought in Pritchard from third to tie the game.

But Indiana took no time to strike back. All-Big Ten catcher Kyle Schwarber bombed a home run to right to give the Hoosiers the lead back in the bottom of the frame, and IU added three more runs in the sixth, two of which came after a fielding error on shortstop Steven Reveles.

"That was huge," Erstad said of Schwarber's home run. "That right there is the shutdown inning - you score and you want to keep that momentum for the next inning. It was an off-speed (pitch) up in the zone, and good hitters do stuff with that. They took the momentum there a little bit. That's what good teams do."

Boldt continued his hot day by leading off the seventh with a double, and he scored when Placzek reached on a throwing error by Indiana's shortstop. Then the Huskers put a pair on with two outs in the eighth, but a lightning strike and subsequent rain delayed the game for 42 minutes. When play resumed, Boldt hit a hard grounder to the pitcher for the final out, ending Nebraska's last threat.

"We put pressure on them in the early innings, but we just couldn't get the big hit," Boldt said. "We got a couple runs across in that one inning and got some momentum, but they took it right back and we weren't able to finish."

For the second straight season, the Big Ten Tournament ended with Nebraska watching Indiana celebrate a conference title, but the circumstances were vastly different this time around. The loss in 2013 ended Nebraska's season, but the Huskers are assured to make the NCAA Tournament field this year. Now they must learn from the miscues of this game and use them when they reach a regional later this week.

"There are a lot of things that we need to get cleaned up to get where we want to be," Lubach said. "But you've got to look and see that we've got our best baseball ahead of us, and the time that matters is still ahead of us."

Sunday standout

Outfielder Ryan Boldt: He may not have gotten the big hit in the eighth, but Boldt was the Huskers' most consistent form of offense all afternoon. He finished the day 3-for-4 with a walk and a pair of runs scored.

Around the horn

***The attendance today is 19,965, an NCAA record for a conference title game. That brings the total attendance to 61,978, which is obviously the record for the Big Ten Tournament.

"I won't put anything past Husker Nation," Erstad said. "They're ridiculous. It's amazing the support you have."

***Prior to Sunday, the last time Hirsch gave up more than one run in an appearance was April 4, 2013. Hirsch allowed three runs though only one was earned, in two innings of work Sunday.

***Placzek's first-inning steal was Nebraska's first since May 4 against Penn State.

***Christensen's last at-bat prior to this game was May 2. He went 0-for-2 Sunday.



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