The Husker pitchers lived dangerously Friday night and, as it typically does, it came back to bite them.
Nebraska allowed Iowa's leadoff hitter to reach in five of the first six innings, escaping unscathed each time until the fifth, when the Hawkeyes scored four times en route to a 4-3 win.
The loss was Nebraska's third in their past four conference games and dropped the Huskers to 20-12 overall. After the game, coach Darin Erstad questioned whether the players had confidence that they could win once conference play got going.
"I'm not sure our guys believe they can win in conference," he said. "That's something that myself as a head coach has to get through their heads and help develop that belief. We're dealing with a group of guys that haven't won in conference play. It's my job to get them to believe and get over that hump and we will."
The Huskers managed some offense in the early going, but spoiled opportunities to pile on more runs. A single by sophomore designated hitter Michael Pritchard scored a run in the third, but Pritchard was stranded on second.
In the fourth inning, the first three Nebraska batters reached base, scoring one run and putting men on second and third with no outs. But Pat Kelly grounded out to third and Kash Kalkowski was thrown out at the plate. A pop out and strikeout ended the threat.
"Right there, that's the ballgame," Erstad said of the wasted opportunity. "We're not good enough to overcome those things. We have to be very sharp and execute at a high level or we're not going to win very many games."
The wheels came off in the top of the fifth. The leadoff hitter dribbled a routine to third baseman Kurt Farmer, whose errant throw allowed the runner to reach second. The next two batters were walked and hit by a pitch, respectively, by Tom Lemke to load the bases.
Erstad brought in Tyler King, who promptly surrendered a two-run single. After getting an out, King was replaced by Dylan Vogt. Vogt struck out the first hitter he faced before allowing a single to score two more runs.
Erstad said he knew the big inning was coming because of the way Lemke allowed the leadoff hitters to have their way. The junior only sent the first batter down once, in the fourth inning.
"When that happens, you're not going to be consistently getting people out and eventually, one of those innings they're going to score," Erstad said. "It happened and we just couldn't get over the hump offensively."
Senior outfielder Kale Kiser got the Huskers back within one in the bottom half of the inning when he doubled to lead off the inning and scored two batters later.
But the Huskers weren't able to do any more damage against Iowa starter Jarred Hippen. The closest they came was in the eighth inning when Rich Sanguinetti led off with a single and moved to second on a sacrifice bunt. But relief pitcher Nick Brown picked the junior off and Nebraska didn't have another base runner for the rest of the game.
"We had our chances," Erstad said. "We put some ones on the board. We had chances for some crooked numbers but couldn't do it. They had more hits than us, we had more errors… enough said."
Erstad said that in the end, it boils down to the belief that the Huskers seem to be missing. Nebraska was 9-17 in conference play last year and 10-17 two years ago, bringing him to believe that his team simply doesn't think they can win.
"It has nothing to do with wins and losses - it's how you approach the game," Erstad said. "You cannot play this game timid. If you go out there timid, you are not going to play for the Nebraska baseball team. Right now we've got some guys that are on their heels and that's just not going to get it done. We have to get over that hump and we'll find guys that will do it."
The two teams will face off again tomorrow at 2:05.
Around the horn
***Friday was the fourth time in his eight starts that Lemke pitched four innings or fewer. He gave up five hits and three runs (one earned) against the Hawkeyes.
***Kiser ended a long slump with his double to lead off the fifth inning. Kiser had been hitless in his last five games and popped out in his first at-bat Friday, a span of 17 at-bats without a hit.
***Kelly's 12-game hitting streak came to an end with an 0-for-4 performance.
***Chad Christensen's fourth-inning double was his first extra-base hit in six games. He had 15 extra-base hits coming into the game (seven doubles, two triples, six home runs).