MINNEAPOLIS - When the Huskers lost Thursday afternoon to Ohio State, coach Darin Erstad knew he needed to devise a new plan. With Nebraska's lack of pitching depth, he knew he would have to get creative with his use of NU's limited arms. He approached the team with his new plan Friday morning, which came with the calculated risk of saving Friday starter Christian DeLeon instead of throwing him against Minnesota that day.
But the gamble paid off. Nebraska beat the Gophers, then watched DeLeon toss eight shutout innings Saturday to get revenge and eliminate the Buckeyes Saturday. In the second game Saturday, reliever Dylan Vogt gutted out seven innings and the Huskers earned a walk-off win.
It appeared the final step of the plan might fall into place Sunday in the Big Ten Tournament's final game. Down 3-1, the Huskers scratched across runs in the seventh and eighth innings to tie the game. But the Huskers (29-30) ran out of gas and IU's Scott Donley hit a single with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth to win the tournament for Indiana (43-14) and end Nebraska's season.
"I think they understood exactly what was ahead of them," Erstad said after the game. "I came to them with a new plan and gave them a blueprint for how we're going to get this done, to give them a path. It was kind of like a checklist for them as they went through it. I think as they started to get closer, they started to smell it a little bit, that this is actually working. Our guys enjoy the grind. They enjoy being dirty, being tired and going out there and playing hard."
Everything about Sunday's game paralleled the grind-it-out culture Nebraska embraced over the past week. Just three days removed from throwing a career-high 117 pitches, starter Kyle Kubat labored through five innings, giving up just one run. Reliever Luke Bublitz made a key contirubtion to limit damage in the sixth inning, his fourth appearance in five days. The Husker pitchers got into some trouble, but the defense backed them up with three double plays.
Kubat set the tone Sunday. The sophomore missed nearly half the season with arm soreness but didn't hesitate taking the ball on three days' rest. He didn't have his usual stuff and gave up seven hits with only two strikeouts, but he also gave up just one run. But with the sophomore's future health on the line, Erstad had no choice but to take him out after he threw 188 pitches in a four-day span.
"Coach Erstad came to me after five and said, 'You're done,'" Kubat said. "I always want to take the ball all night, but we had some guys in the pen that we felt that could take the ball and throw up zeroes. Those guys couldn't have done a better job, but unfortunately we came up short."
Brandon Pierce, who had made just one appearance in the last month, came in and got in trouble almost immediately. After putting runners on the corners with one out, he was pulled in favor of Bublitz, who induced what appeared to be a double-play ground ball to second baseman Pat Kelly. But Kelly bobbled the ball, then hurried his throw and tossed the ball past first and into Nebraska's dugout. Bublitz wiggled out of the jam by only allowing one more run to score, but the Huskers trailed 3-1 at that point.
"That guy played absolutely incredible defense all year and all tournament," Erstad said. "Just because there was an error in that situation, that didn't cost us the game. That's playing baseball. You try to make an aggressive play. If it was a passive play where he was nervous or scared, then I'd have an issue with it. But if you make mistakes, I want you to be aggressive."
But Kelly hadn't had his final say. The sophomore drove in a run on a bloop single in the seventh and catcher Tanner Lubach tied it with a sacrifice fly one inning later.
After escaping a bases-loaded jam in the eighth, NU reliever Jeff Chesnut gave up a leadoff double to Will Nolden and intentionally walked Kyle Schwarber. Erstad turned to closer Josh Roeder, but the sophomore, who pitched three innings Saturday night, walked a batter to load the bases before giving up the fateful walk-off hit.
"It's definitely tough, but it's good that we went down fighting," senior shortstop Bryan Peters said. "We fought all year. It sucks to come up short, but give Indiana all the credit. They're a great team."
Finishing the season with a losing record certainly wasn't what the Huskers had in mind when the year began. But as the season progressed, Erstad's culture and philosophy took more and more of a hold on this team, culminating in an unlikely run that pushed Indiana to the brink. That bodes well for the future, but Erstad didn't want to talk about that Sunday… not yet, at least.
"I'm not turning the page yet," Erstad said. "This one stings a little bit. I'm a baseball guy and tomorrow's a new day and it's exciting and you move on. But right now, it stinks. I feel really bad for our guys. I don't believe in a participation award ribbon and that's what we have today."
***Kyle Kubat: 4 days, 2 starts, 188 pitches, 12 innings, one earned run. The numbers speak for themselves.
***Pat Kelly: His error in the sixth inning certainly hurt, but the sophomore bounced back and made up for it. He brought in Nebraska's first run in the fifth inning and plated another run with his single in the seventh.
***Bryan Peters: Nebraska's offense was sputtering until the senior hit a one-out triple in the fifth. That hit injected life into the bats as Peters scored during the next at-bat. He also helped start several double plays on defense.
Around the horn
***DeLeon, Kubat, Kelly, Peters, first baseman Kash Kalkowski and outfielder Chad Christensen were all named to the All-Tournament team.
***Sophomore outfielder Austin Darby was ejected after the seventh inning when he threw his helmet in reacting to a close play at first. Darby laid down a bunt , thought he was safe and expressed his displeasure in the call, earning himself a seat on the bench.
"A young guy lost his cool in the heat of the moment and threw his helmet," Erstad said. "That's an automatic ejection. It's a good learning lesson for our guys. I guarantee it won't happen again."
***Pritchard's walk in the first inning extended his streak of reaching base at least to 42 games.