The situation couldn't have unfolded much better for Nebraska heading into its home game with Michigan Thursday night. Indiana and Minnesota had both lost earlier in the day, meaning that a Huskers win would move them into a three-way tie for first place with the Hoosiers and Ohio State Buckeyes. And with ace Kyle Kubat on the mound, NU looked to be in good position to move up on a few conference foes.
But after a quick start Thursday night, the Huskers faded badly. NU held a 5-2 lead heading into the sixth inning and proceeded to give up five runs over the next two frames. The Nebraska offense wasn't able to respond and the Huskers (24-27, 14-8) dropped the series opener 7-5 to the Wolverines (28-24, 13-9).
"I thought we were playing pretty decent, but we get in those 'Do you believe?' innings in the sixth and the seventh," Darin Erstad said. "We've been here a lot of times against quality opponents and we haven't been able to get over that hump. I saw some guys tighten up and it's my job to get them mentally prepared to handle that stuff. It's a work in progress."
Making the loss even more painful was the fact that Nebraska left two men on base in both the eighth and ninth innings. With two outs and runners on first and second in the eighth, Chad Christensen went down looking on a questionable pitch that appeared to be outside. The normally placid Christensen argued with the umpire for several seconds and was likely saved from ejection by Erstad, who came sprinting out of the dugout.
But the Huskers came even closer in the ninth. With two outs and Josh Scheffert on first, Tanner Lubach roped a double down the leftfield line to set Blake Headley up with two men in scoring position. Headley ripped a line drive but it was directly at the third baseman, who snared it for the final out.
"Our guys know that if we continue to put guys on base and continue to pressure people, it's going to happen," Erstad said. "You're going to hit balls at people sometimes. It's one of those things where you can't control where you hit it. You just put a good path on it and there you go."
The Huskers wouldn't have needed a comeback if not for Michigan's run in the game's middle innings. Starter Kyle Kubat didn't have his best stuff, allowing nine hits and three runs (two earned) through the game's first six innings. The Wolverines scored a run in both the fifth and sixth frames and Erstad inserted Dylan Vogt in the seventh, hoping to slow Michigan's momentum.
But the opposite occurred. Though an error by shortstop Wes Edrington certainly didn't help his cause, Vogt was beat around by the Wolverines, who collected four hits and scored four runs against him in the seventh.
"Dylan's a pitch-to-contact guy, but he's got to be down in the zone," Erstad said. "There have been times this year when he's been up in the zone and he's been hit. He had a one-out walk with nobody on base and free passes will hurt you. When you're up in the zone, it doesn't matter who you are, you're going to get hit."
The loss will make Nebraska's hunt for a first-round bye in next week's Big Ten Tournament more difficult to attain. The Huskers remain in third behind Indiana and Ohio State but are also being pressured by Minnesota (12-7 in conference play), Illinois (13-9) and Michigan. But Erstad continues to insist that his team won't be scoreboard watching. He just wants them to play the way they are capable and everything else will work itself out.
"You guys can talk about that all you want," Erstad said. "I'm concerned about how we go about our business and how we play. All that stuff, it doesn't matter. This is no different than game 10 in the season as far as execution goes. That's all I care about. All this other stuff about seedings and tournaments… boy, you start looking at the big picture and you're in big trouble."
The two teams will meet again Friday at 6:35 pm. before the regular season finale Saturday at 12:05 p.m.
"It's a tough start, but we've got to take what we can from it and bounce back," Lubach said. "We still have a chance to win a series. There's no time to dwell on it."
***Pat Kelly: The second baseman only had one hit, but it was a big one. With NU down 1-0 in the second inning, Kelly ripped a two-out, two-RBI triple that would give the Huskers the lead until the seventh inning.
***Tanner Lubach: The junior continued his recent hot streak with another multi-hit game. He drove in Nebraska's final run with a chopping grounder in the fifth inning and put the Huskers in position to tie the game with his double in the ninth.
Around the horn
***Michigan's homer in the first inning was only the second given up in Kubat's career.
***Rich Sanguinetti stole his eighth base of the year in the third inning, taking over the team lead.
***Kubat tied a season high with five strikeouts. His career best is seven punch outs, which came last year.
***This was the second game this season that Nebraska had two triples in a single contest.