The Husker offense had done its part, but now there were questions about whether the bullpen could shut the door.
After a disastrous opening weekend of the season in which it blew three leads in the seventh inning or later, the Nebraska relief corps had been lights out. But after giving up a three runs in the eighth inning Wednesday against Kansas State, there were questions about whether that confidence was wavering.
Brandon Pierce had come in and given up a single, a walk and an infield single, the last of which scored a run to cut the Husker lead to 9-6. Coach Darin Erstad came out to have a word with his reliever.
"I told him to breathe. He just gets going so fast and wants to rush," Erstad said. "I just told him to slow down. It's hard to hit a baseball. Just throw it over the plate and see what happens."
Pierce got Mike Kindel to line out to shortstop to neutralize the threat, and Travis Huber pitched a perfect ninth to give the Huskers a 9-6 win, their seventh victory in the last eight games.
The Wildcats struck first Tuesday, scoring off NU starter Jon Keller in the first and Tyler Niederklein again in the third. Meanwhile, the first six Husker hitters went down in order.
But the Nebraska bats came alive in the third. Kurt Farmer walked and Kale Kiser hit a wind-aided home run that just dropped over the left-field fence that tied the game.
The big hit was a bit of a relief for Kiser, who'd been mired in a slump to start the season. The senior had been hitting .161 coming into the game.
"I'll take it," a smiling Kiser said afterward. "You always want games like this. It gives me something to build off for sure."
After a hit batsman and a walk, Chad Christensen delivered a two-out single that drove in two more runs.
The onslaught continued in the fifth and the Huskers tagged on four runs when NU sandwiched RBI singles from Christensen and Farmer around a two-RBI double from Josh Scheffert. Bryan Peters knocked in another run in the sixth.
The Huskers wouldn't have a baserunner after the sixth inning, but they didn't need it.
Erstad said his plan was to have Keller throw only about 40 pitches in order to preserve his spot in the weekend rotation. That meant the bullpen was going to have to step up.
For the second time in three games, Husker relievers combined to pitch more than seven innings. On Saturday, they hurled 7.2 innings of scoreless ball.
They weren't quite that good Tuesday, but it was good enough. Six relievers combined to give up nine hits but just three runs.
"I don't know if it's nice or comfortable," pitching coach Ted Silva said. "I'd rather just have our starter go seven, turn it over and call it a day. It hasn't always worked out that easy, but we feel all our guys are prepared and everyone is starting to establish their role and get comfortable. They're all ready to go every day."
The bullpen wasn't perfect on this day, and the Huskers have the lineup to thank for their seventh win of the year, particularly the back end of the order. Farmer, Kiser and Peters combined for five hits, four RBIs and four runs scored.
"We knew going in that one guy wasn't going to carry us," Erstad said. "We've had production up and down the lineup. It's nice to not know where it's going to come from every day and getting production down there is going to help in the long run."
Around the horn
***The win was the 34th straight for the Huskers in home openers. NU also improved to 164-105 all-time against Kansas State.
***If it wasn't obvious already, Silva confirmed that Huber has locked down the closer spot. "Somebody's going to have to take it from him," Silva said.
*** Peters has sustained his share of bruises over his career. His third-inning hit-by-pitch was the 38th time he's been plunked in his career, good for third on the Husker career list.
***Christensen's two-RBI single in the third helped to solidify his status as the most clutch Husker hitter. He now has nine RBIs with two outs this year, the most on the team.
***Dexter Spitsnogle will make his first start for the Huskers Wednesday against the University of Nebraska-Kearney. The transfer was a starter at Doane, but his one appearance this year was in relief against Minnesota on Sunday.
Silva said the senior will like be limited to 50 or 60 pitches Wednesday.