In a series that had been dubbed a true barometer of what kind of team Nebraska really was early on this season, the Huskers were more than happy to walk away from this weekend's series against Cal with a 2-2 split following Monday's 9-5 victory at Haymarket Park.
Nebraska (10-6 overall) used an eight-run fifth inning to take its first lead of the day and never looked back, as a strong outing by the bullpen helped junior starter Tyler Niederklien improve to 2-1 on the year after 5.1 innings of work.
Prior to this weekend's series split, the Huskers hadn't won or tied a series against a ranked team since winning two of three against No. 5 UCLA last season. Cal was ranked as high as No. 18 coming into Monday's game.
"It was a battle," NU head coach Darin Erstad said. "That's a team that went to the College World Series last year, and they're only missing a few guys from that team. You can see why, from a program that was going to disappear to fight their way back, you can tell they have a toughness to them. They showed it coming back after we scored eight runs.
"It was a great weekend and great test for our guys. Going 2-2 in a four-game series is not the end of the world. There's a lot of positives to take away from the week."
The first half of the game breezed by in a classic pitching dual, but the offensive fireworks came out in a big way in the fifth in front of a crowd of 1,941.
Cal struck first on a two-run homer by second baseman Tony Renda that gave the Golden Bears a 2-0 lead.
Needing to come up with some offense to answer, the Huskers responded with one of their most explosive innings of the season. Junior third baseman Josh Scheffert led things off with a single, and Nebraska eventually loaded the bases after a walk from freshman centerfielder Austin Darby and senior right fielder Kale Kiser getting hit by a pitch.
The Huskers picked up their first run of the day when junior second baseman Bryan Peters walked on five pitches to score Scheffert. On the next at-bat, freshman designated hitter Pat Kelly came through with a base-clearing triple to the gap in right center that gave NU a 4-2 lead.
Prior to Kelly's hit, the Huskers hadn't scored a run in 13 consecutive innings going back to Sunday's 4-0 loss.
"(Niederklien) kept us in the game, and he pitched great," Kelly said. "We were just kind of looking for that big hit, and I stepped up. It was a good inning."
The Huskers weren't done yet, either. Sophomore left fielder Michael Pritchard drove Kelly home on a single to right, and the Huskers later got runners on first and third after junior first baseman Kash Kalkowski reached on an error by Cal shortstop Mike Reuvekamp and Pritchard moved to third.
That set up Scheffert for his second at-bat of the inning. After starting the rally off, Scheffert put the finishing touches on the rally with a three-run blast over the left field fence for his first homer of the season to increase the lead to 8-2.
The offense continued on into the top of the sixth, as Cal came right back with three more runs to cut NU's lead to 8-5. Niederklien was pulled after giving up a double and a walk to the first three batters he faced, and pinch hitter Vince Bruno hit an RBI single off sophomore reliever Luke Bublitz to make it 8-3.
Cal then loaded the bases after a walk by Reuvekamp, and right fielder Danny Oh came up with a two-run single to cut it to 8-5.
Nebraska was able to bump the lead back up to four runs in the bottom of the seventh after Kalkowski ripped a line drive down the right field line to score Kelly from second and make it 9-5.
Sophomore relief pitcher Brandon Pierce came in for the top of the eighth and put the Golden Bears down quickly with the help of a 6-4-3 double play. Sophomore Tyler King then closed things out in the top of the ninth by sitting Cal down in order.
Scheffert and Kelly both ended the day 2-for-4 at the plate with three RBI each, while Pritchard was 2-for-3 with a run and an RBI.
The Huskers will go right back to work on Tuesday for the seventh game of their 17-game home stand, as they'll take on South Dakota State at 1:35 p.m. CT.
Around the horn
***Erstad was asked if he felt this weekend was a measuring stick for his team seeing how they played a ranked opponent from one of the better college baseball conferences in the country.
"I don't compare (us) to anybody," Erstad said. "I'm worried about what we have, and I couldn't really care less who we're playing. I'm just trying to get our team ready and play our baseball, and whoever we happen to play, we play. I'm not into measuring sticks. I'm into execution and having our guys come out with a certain level of intensity every single day."
***Erstad also talked about the grind his team is going through, having now played nine games in 11 days and not having a day off until Wednesday.
"It is hard to get up every single day," Erstad said. "It's one thing to do it at the professional level, but to do it at a collegiate level where you have to go to school and you have to study, there's a lot of ways that these guys are pushed and pulled. This is a good mental toughness training for them."
***Niederklien ended the day allowing four runs (all earned) on seven hits with one walk and four strikeouts over 5.1 innings pitched. Erstad said he was very pleased with the effort he got out of his starter.
"He got out of a few jams and made pitches when he had to," Erstad said. "That's what he does. He's a grinder. He has a lot of pride when he starts, and it's his game. He did a fantastic job again."
***When Kiser was beaned in the fifth inning, he moved into a tie for sixth on Nebraska's all-time career hit by pitch list. Kiser has now been plunked 36 times, equaling Jake Mort's career mark.