MINNEAPOLIS - When Darin Erstad met with the media after Nebraska's 3-2 loss to Ohio State Thursday, he said Christian DeLeon, NU's Friday starter for much of the year, would start Friday against Minnesota in a game that would eliminate the loser from the Big Ten Tournament.
But late Thursday night, he changed his mind and decided to go with Ryan Hander, a senior whose last start came almost two months ago. Erstad knew it was a gamble, but he figured that if the Huskers were to have any chance of winning the tournament, he would need DeLeon in what could be one of two games on Saturday. Nebraska's opponent (which was unknown until the Gophers beat Illinois 3-1 early Friday afternoon) would be tired and out of weekend starters. It was time to test fate.
"I'm trying to find a way to win the tournament," Erstad said. "I knew exactly it was a risky situation. I was in a position to not start our Friday guy and not have our closer (Josh Roeder) pitch and be out of the tournament. But at the end of the day, you have to sell something to your team. You have to show them the blueprint of how you're going to win this tournament. I laid that out for them this morning."
The gamble paid off. Hander gave the Huskers (27-29) 4.2 innings, Luke Bublitz had the best outing of his career and the offense jumped on Minnesota starter Dalton Sawyer to win 7-4, eliminate the Gophers (32-22) and extend NU's season at least another day. The Huskers will play Saturday at 3:35 against the loser of Friday night's matchup between Ohio State and Indiana.
Starting Hander was a dangerous proposition. The senior started the season in NU's weekend rotation, but offseason hip surgery sapped him of the strength he needed to go deep into outings. In his seven starts, he lasted just 33 total innings and posted a 6.55 ERA.
But Hander's curveball was working Friday and while he was far from perfect, he kept the Gophers off the board for the game's first four innings.
"I found out (about starting) this morning and I got really excited," Hander said. "I'll do whatever to help the team. I had to go out there and throw strikes and put our team in the best position to win a baseball game."
The NU offense began slowly against Sawyer, a freshman lefty making his first career start. But something clicked in the fourth inning as the Huskers exploded for six runs on five hits, highlighted by a 383-foot home run by second baseman Pat Kelly that scored three runs.
But Hander's strength started to give in the fifth. A leadoff walk and a pair of singles put Minnesota on the board and two outs later, Matt Halloran hit a three-run home run to pull the Gophers within 6-4.
It was then Bublitz's turn to step up. The junior reliever not only got out of the fifth inning without further damage, but he allowed just one base runner over the next three innings to preserve the Nebraska lead. For a pitcher who entered the game with a 6.14 ERA and hadn't gone longer than 2.2 innings in any game this year, the performance was nothing short of miraculous.
"The biggest thing is that I was throwing strikes," Bublitz said. "I've had issues with my command and today I managed to throw my fastball for strikes and just let it work. That's pretty much what it came down to. We (the bullpen) have struggled at times this year definitely, me included. It's been kind of a rough go-around, but we need to keep winning so we need to step it up. Anything to do to keep us playing."
The Huskers added an insurance run on a Chad Christensen sacrifice fly in the seventh and Roeder slammed the door with a pair of strikeouts in the ninth. With as many as three games remaining and its pitching stretched thin, Nebraska is still a long shot to win the tournament. But Erstad's gamble paid off and as long as the Huskers are alive, they still have a chance.
"We're not getting in (the NCAA Tournament) if we don't win the thing," Erstad said. "I'm not in here to say 'Good job guys, we won two games and made it to Saturday.' I'm trying to find a way to win this thing for our boys because they just put so much work and effort into this thing. It's the least I can do to try and figure out something to give them a shot."
***Pat Kelly: His home run certainly stood out, but Kelly also doubled and scored to give NU's lead some padding in the seventh. He also made a fantastic diving play on a ground ball up the middle to help Hander out in the fourth.
***Luke Bublitz: For a pitcher who has been defined by his inconsistency, this was the performance of his career. Not only did he avoid walking anyone, but he also threw just 30 pitches in his 3.1 innings, leaving the door open on his availability for Saturday and possibly even Sunday.
"Luke Bublitz pitched the best I've seen him throw a baseball since I've been here," Erstad said. "That was a fantastic job."
Around the horn
***Kelly's home run was the first hit by any player in the Big Ten Tournament. Minnesota's homer in the next frame produced this peculiar stat - through the first 55 innings of the tournament, there were no home runs. Then in the span of one inning, there were two.
***With Kalkowski's RBI single, the Huskers have now had at least one player with 40 RBIs in each of the past 36 seasons.