When Pat Kelly came to the plate with one out in the bottom of the sixth, Nebraska was in desperate need of a spark.
After pounding Minnesota starter DJ Snelten for seven runs in the fourth inning, the NU bullpen had allowed the Golden Gophers to battle back and tie the game in the top of the sixth. Minnesota had all the momentum.
Kelly had a chance to change that.
"I'm just focused on base hits," the freshman said. "The big hits will come, and they fortunately came at the right time today."
Kelly hit a fly ball that just dropped over the rightfield wall to give put the Huskers back on top 8-7, a score that would become final three innings later. The Huskers improved to 11-9 in the conference and are currently tied for fourth in the league standings.
"Normally, when it's 7-1, you're like, 'Sweet, we're going to be good,'" coach Darin Erstad said. "But that's not the way it works. They hit some tough pitches and fought back into the game. Pat stepped up and got the momentum back in our favor."
Ryan Hander got the start for the Huskers, just his second of the season and first in Big Ten play. The junior seemed impervious to the pressure, giving up just one run through the first five innings.
The offense fought off some early doldrums and exploded for six hits and seven runs in the fourth. The way Hander was dealing, it appeared to be all the offense NU would need.
But Hander gave up a run in the sixth. Tyler Niederklein came in and quickly got two outs. But the Golden Gophers staged a two-out rally, piling up seven runs before Tyler King finally induced a fly out to end the inning.
"It's tough when things get going," catcher Cory Burleson said. "Hitting is contagious. You saw that from us in the fourth inning then from them in the sixth. One guy starts to hit and it just keeps going."
After Kelly's shot, the Huskers had the lead once again. With the way the bullpen had performed to that point, however, the edge seemed far from secure.
But Brandon Pierce, demoted from the weekend rotation, had one of the best outings of his career. The sophomore pitched three innings without allowing a single Minnesota hitter to reach base, picking up his second save of the season and ensuring the NU victory.
Pierce acknowledged after the game that some of the early accomplishments he had starting got to his head and had a hand in some of his recent outings that led to the demotion.
"I just want to slow the game down and pitch like I'm capable of pitching," he said. "I think some of the success I had as a starter got to me a little bit - not in the sense that I wasn't working hard, but I was probably feeling a little better about myself than I should have. It was the best thing for me to go back to the bullpen and really find who I am as a pitcher."
The Huskers have a chance to sweep the series with another victory Sunday at 1:05. Erstad said after the game that he still didn't know who would pitch, but the last two days have shown that his team will battle regardless of who is on the mound.
"At this point in the season, we have to win series, and we accomplished that," Erstad said. "But we need as many wins as we can possibly get to get into this tournament. We'll have to come out and play sharp tomorrow. They're going to be hungry and it's not going to be easy."
Around the horn
***Nebraska improved to 23-12 in day games. The Huskers are just 7-7 in night games.
***With Michael Pritchard's 25-game hitting streak coming to an end yesterday, Richard Stock's 12-game streak became the team's longest current run. Stock singled in the fourth to stretch the streak to 13 games.
***The Huskers have now outscored opponents 79-17 in the fourth inning this year.
***Kelly's seventh homers are the most by an NU freshman since Alex Gordon hit that many in 2003.