STILLWATER, Okla. - The Nebraska baseball team has tested the cardiac strength of its fans' hearts all season long, and its latest victory was no exception.
After squandering an early 4-0 lead, Nebraska trailed Binghamton 6-5 in the final frame of its second-round game in the Stillwater regional. A loss to the regional's No. 4 seed would have sent the Huskers home without any wins in their first postseason appearance since 2008.
But with one out in the ninth, Ryan Boldt singled to drive in Ty Kildow and tie the game, then Steven Reveles used a safety squeeze bunt to bring home Jake Placzek. Michael Pritchard added an insurance run with an RBI single, Zach Hirsch slammed the door shut in the bottom of the ninth and the Huskers (41-20) lived to fight another day with the 8-6 win.
Nebraska will next play the loser of Saturday night's matchup between Oklahoma State and Cal State Fullerton Sunday at noon.
"Today was pretty much one of the most out-of-control games I've ever been a part of," Pritchard said. "It was just unbelievable, and I don't even know how to describe that win honestly."
The win also helped pay off Darin Erstad's gamble. After the Huskers lost to Cal State Fullerton Friday, Erstad knew the Huskers would need four wins (one Saturday, two Sunday, one Monday) to win the regional. Facing the lowest-seeded team, Erstad opted to start Austin Christensen instead of weekend starters Aaron Bummer and Kyle Kubat, banking on the hope that his team could outlast the Bearcats with a midweek starter and save the big guns for later on in the weekend.
"You've got to take a chance to try and win four games," Erstad said. "At some point, you're going to have to have a guy that hasn't started, and I'd rather do it on the front end than the back end. We've saved a couple of our starters, so we basically have our weekend rotation intact."
The strategy looked brilliant early as the Huskers scored three times in the first and again in the second to take a 4-0 lead. But Christensen fell apart in the fourth, as he and Bob Greco combined to allow three runs on four hits to let Binghamton back in the game.
A sacrifice fly by Pritchard extended the Huskers' lead to 5-3 in the fifth inning, but the Bearcats struck again with three runs in the sixth, getting some serious help from a throwing error on reliever Jake Hohensee. Nebraska put just one man on base in the next two innings and appeared on life support heading into the final frame.
Austin Darby flew out to start the ninth, but Ben Miller worked a walk. Placzek hit what appeared to be a pop out to shallow right, but the ball dropped just inside the first-base line, allowing pinch runner Kildow to advance to third. Boldt, Reveles and Pritchard each knocked in a run in consecutive at-bats to give the Huskers the 8-6 advantage.
"The stage was heightened, but you just have to go up there taking the same approach you always take," first baseman Blake Headley said. "If you try and do too much, things aren't going to work out for you. You just have to stay focused and stay calm and know you're doing this for your team."
Hirsch, who had come on to relieve Hohensee in the sixth, finished the Bearcats off in the ninth to earn his fifth win of the season.
"My job is to go in and throw strikes and keep the game close," Hirsch said. "I think it's a testament to the resiliency of our whole team to never give up. I knew that if I was able to make my pitches and keep things close, these guys were going to find a way to put together a couple of runs."
The Huskers' road ahead is far from an easy one. Nebraska must first win at noon on Sunday. A victory in that contest would earn the Huskers a date with the winner of Saturday night's game Sunday night. Win that game, and a rematch with the same squad awaits on Monday.
It's a daunting task, but with the weekend rotation basically intact, Erstad believes the Huskers have a chance. Whether or not they complete the mission and advance to a super regional, one thing is certain - they're going to make things interesting.
"We have a level in us that we still haven't played at, and tomorrow would be a nice day for us to do that," Erstad said. "But I still believe that our boys are going to fight. We're probably going to have some guys on the mound that haven't pitched a lot help us out, but that's why you keep score, and we've got a chance."
Center fielder Ryan Boldt: The comeback likely isn't completed without Boldt's ninth-inning single that tied the game 6-6. It was just one of three hits on the day for the freshman, who scored three times.
Reliever Zach Hirsch: The lefty gave up just two hits in 3.1 innings of work Saturday, keeping the Bearcats off the board while the Huskers worked through their offensive issues. The rock of the bullpen all year long, Hirsch likely saved NU's season with his clutch performance.
Shortstop Steven Reveles: Moved up to second in the order due to concerns about Placzek's wrist, Reveles had two hits, knocked in a pair of runs and scored once himself. His perfectly-placed safety squeeze in the ninth inning gave the Huskers the lead for good.
Around the horn
***Erstad said Bummer will likely start the first game Sunday, and Kubat would start the second if Nebraska gets there. Should the Huskers win both and force a game Monday, Erstad said Christian DeLeon, who hasn't pitched in more than a month due to arm soreness, will start.
"(DeLeon) threw a productive full-speed bullpen yesterday and felt good today," Erstad said. "If we get to that point, we'll have him available for service."
***Miller's ninth-inning walk was the first and only of the game for Nebraska.
***The Huskers had gone nine games without scoring in the first inning before plating three in the opening frame Saturday.
***Boldt's fifth-inning triple was his sixth of the year and second in as many days. That gives
***The attendance was 2,150.