When Austin Darby bombed a three-run home run over the rightfield wall in the top of the fifth inning to give Nebraska a 5-2 lead over Kansas State, the Huskers appeared to have taken control of the game. The squad had momentum after taking two of three from Illinois last weekend and the long-dormant offense seemed to have awoken.
But the pitching couldn't hold the lead and though Nebraska staged a plucky ninth-inning rally, the Huskers fell 10-8.
"I don't care where we're playing or what the weather is," Darin Erstad said on his postgame radio appearance. "It doesn't matter. It's the same for both teams. I thought we were ready to play and on the mound, when you hit leadoff guys and give up walks, that's what's going to happen. We pride ourselves on playing good defense and taking care of the baseball and we've let that get away from us the last couple of games. We've been pretty good all year, but it's something that we need to clean up before this weekend."
Nebraska looked dead in the water heading into the ninth inning, as they trailed 10-6 and were facing Wildcat closer Tanner Witt. But the Huskers used four singles, including a trio of infield hits, to score a pair of runs and put two men on for Darby, who already had three hits. But the sophomore flew out to center to end the game.
The Huskers collected 14 hits and walked seven times, but they stranded 15 runners and left the bases loaded twice.
Still, the offense did its part. It was the pitching that let NU down. As is often the case in midweek games, Erstad used several pitchers. Eight hurlers took the mound for Nebraska, none of whom went more than 2.1 innings. Unfortunately for the Huskers, few were able to get comfortable.
The real problem innings were the fifth and sixth frames. After Darby's home run, Jeff Chesnut and Zach Hirsch combined to give up three runs to tie the game. Kansas State took the lead for good in the next inning when the Wildcats tagged Colton Howell and Michael Hoppes for three more runs. Hoppes struggled again in the seventh, giving two more runs.
The Huskers have gotten results from the end of their bullpen in Dylan Vogt and Josh Roeder, but the search for reliable results in the middle innings continues.
"They're going to go through some growing pains," Erstad said. "We know that. We're searching for some depth in our bullpen and we're going to throw guys out there. Now it's identifying the problems and letting them know what's wrong and seeing if they can fix them and see if they make the same mistakes. That's where we're at. We've got some guys in the back of the bullpen that are good, but we've been in trouble in the fifth and six innings and we're having a heck of a job getting people out."
Further adding to the rough night were the health struggles of senior Tyler Niederklein. The pitcher has dealt with several injuries over the past two seasons and is coming off offseason hip surgery. Niederklein got the start Tuesday, but was mostly ineffective (four hits, three walks) in his 2.1 innings.
"I'm not so much looking at the results as how he feels," Erstad said. "He's still weak. He doesn't feel comfortable. I'm sure he's very frustrated not to be able to get up and down multiple times and feel good. I just feel terrible for him. We'll have to reevaluate and see how he bounces back from this."
The Huskers are in action Friday, when they will begin a three-game series at home against Northwestern.
Around the horn
***Third baseman Josh Scheffert missed the game after straining his elbow in the series finale against Illinois last weekend. He will be out 2-3 weeks.
***Kansas State pitcher Jake Doller had just four walks in 19.2 innings coming into the game, but the Huskers worked him for three walks in his 3.2 innings Tuesday night.
***Tanner Lubach threw out three would-be base stealers.
***Chad Christensen extended his on-base streak to 16 games.
***The teams combined to use 16 pitchers.