COLUMBUS, Ohio - Tony Bucciferro, the Michigan State starter who gave up just one run over the game's first eight innings, was sitting in the dugout with his head in his hands.
Michael Pritchard, the Nebraska designated hitter with four hits already, stood in the on-deck circle, dying for one last chance at the plate.
Neither team's star would have a hand in the game's pivotal play.
The Spartans were still clinging to a 10-9 lead after the Huskers scored seven runs in the ninth inning with two outs and Kale Kiser on third. Pat Kelly hit a sharp liner that seemed destined to drop into right field for the game-tying single, but MSU second baseman Ryan Jones made a leaping catch to end the game.
"This game will test your emotions and test your will in all kinds of different ways," coach Darin Erstad said. "Here's just another experience of a group of guys pouring their heart and soul out on the field and getting it ripped away at the last second. It's a lesson to learn on how to learn with adversity."
Things looked promising early on for the Huskers. Kyle Kubat allowed just one base runner over the first two innings and Austin Darby followed a Kash Kalkowski double with an RBI single to stake the Huskers out to an early lead.
The Spartans came back to score twice in the third, but Pritchard scored on a MSU error to tie the game in the bottom of the inning.
Then the floodgates opened. The Spartans scored twice more in the fourth, chasing Kubat. Jordan Keur led off the fifth with a solo homer off of Luke Bublitz. Michigan State then pounded Bublitz and Tom Lemke for five runs in the sixth and added a single run off of Lemke in the seventh for good measure.
Over the first two innings, Michigan State was hitless and managed only one base runner on a walk. But in the third through seventh innings, the Spartans hit a combined 15 for 26 and scored 10 runs.
"We have to get down in the zone," Erstad said. "We throw a lot of changeups and when you leave changeups up, they get hammered. We didn't play defense behind them and when you do that, things can get sideways."
But the Husker bats, quiet for most of the game, awakened when things looked most desperate. NU scored seven runs in the ninth inning, the final three coming on a two-out, bases-clearing double by Kiser. A passed ball moved Kiser to third and put Kelly in a position to complete the comeback.
Just named to the All Big Ten Freshman team Tuesday, Kelly put a charge into a Tony Wieber pitch, but Jones made a web-gem quality stab to end the game.
"You always want to be the guy who comes through for your team," Pritchard said. "We've been in situations like this all year. We don't quit ever. We're going to go out with the same approach. It was just too little, too late."
The Huskers will play the loser of the Penn State-Ohio State game tomorrow at 11:05 CT. If NU wins, it would play again Friday at 11:05. A loss would end Nebraska's season.
"It's the same exact thing we've been playing through all year," Erstad said. "Our guys never quit. It's a cruel game. You come up short sometimes and it's all about how you bounce back."
Around the horn
***Erstad said he's still not sure who will start tomorrow. Ryan Hander has been the Huskers' second starter for each of the past two weekends, but Erstad didn't say he would get the opportunity again.
***Zach Hirsch made his first relief appearance of the season when he entered to start the eighth inning. He pitched two scoreless innings.
***Richard Stock hit an RBI single in the ninth inning to extend his hitting streak to 19 games.
***Pritchard had four hits and a walk, the second time this season he's reached five times in one game. It was his third game with four hits this season.