STILLWATER, Oklah. - How one swing can change everything.
Things could not have gone much better for Nebraska through the first six innings of Nebraska's regional opener against Cal State Fullerton. Chance Sinclair had a no-hitter working, and while the Huskers' offense wasn't bludgeoning Thomas Eshelman, NU had a 1-0 lead over the Titans' ace.
But CSF tied the game in the seventh, then delivered the death blow in the eighth when J.D. Davis hit a grand slam with two outs. Nebraska wasn't able to recover and fell 5-1 in its first postseason game since 2008.
The Huskers will play the loser of Friday night's Oklahoma State-Binghamton game Saturday at noon.
"We're not just showing up here for that black participation ribbon," Darin Erstad said. "They want to win and they're competitive."
Sinclair was excellent early on, as he retired the first 14 batters he faced and didn't allow a hit until there was one out in the sixth. He allowed one unearned run when first baseman Austin Christensen allowed the leadoff man to reach by misplaying a ground ball in the seventh, but he finished with just two hits and one walk allowed in 6.1 innings.
"I was getting ahead early with a lot of changeups," Sinclair said. "I had a good breaking ball today and I was throwing a three-pitch mix, which really helped."
Fullerton starter Thomas Eshelman's effort didn't give Sinclair much breathing room. Eshelman prevented the Huskers from mounting any sort of threat until the sixth, when Ryan Boldt led off with a triple. Austin Darby grounded out to second on the next play to bring Boldt in and give NU a 1-0 edge.
After CSF tied the game in the seventh, Nebraska had a chance to take the lead right back. The Huskers loaded the bases with one out, but Darby popped out on the infield and Michael Pritchard flew out to center. The Huskers finished the day 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
"I didn't see them pressing," Erstad said. "We just didn't get it done. It's a round ball and a round bat against quality pitchers. It's hard to square up sometimes. We had the guys we wanted come up in those situations and we didn't get it done. That's part of the game."
Zach Hirsch, who replaced Sinclair in the seventh, quickly retired the first two batters in the top of the eigthth before things went south. Timmy Richards singled back up the middle, then Clay Williamson reached on a bizarre ground ball to third that hit the bag and popped in the air, preventing Jake Placzek from making a play. Hirsch walked the next hitter to load the bases for the right-handed Davis, so Erstad turned to closer Josh Roeder. Roeder's fourth pitch was a high fastball that Davis blasted for a no-doubt home run.
"It was best on best, right on right, and he won," Erstad said of the grand slam. "(Roeder) knows what he did - he left a fastball up to a good hitter and it got crushed. It's pretty simple."
To win the regional, Nebraska now has to win four games in the next three days, a tall order for any team, much less one whose Friday starter (Christian DeLeon) is questionable and hasn't pitched in a month. But the Huskers have thrived when behind the eight ball this year, and Saturday's game is the first step toward fighting back once again.
"They've got nothing to lose," Erstad said. "You go out with your back against the wall, and if you lose, you're done. We've been in this position before, last year in the Big Ten Tournament. We responded very well. These guys are going to come out to fight. They like to play and I know they don't want to be done tomorrow."
Starter Chance Sinclair: Named a third-team All-American this week, Sinclair saved his best performance for what could be his last start of the season. Sinclair allowed just four base runners (one of which reached on an error) in 6.1 innings, striking out four on 96 pitches.
Center fielder Ryan Boldt: The freshman scored Nebraska's only run after leading off with a triple in the sixth. He added another hit and walked to load the bases in the bottom of the seventh. Add in a diving catch in center field in the sixth, and Boldt had himself a very solid day.
Around the horn
***Erstad declined to name a starter for Saturday's game. Both Aaron Bummer and Kyle Kubat are available, but the Huskers may try to save one or both for later games.
"I don't know yet," Erstad said. "I'll talk to the staff and we'll try to map out how we're going to stay in this thing as long as physically possible."
***This is Nebraska's 13th trip to the NCAA Tournament and its ninth since 2000.
***Boldt's triple in the sixth inning was NU's 18th three-bagger of the season, the most the Huskers have had since they hit 20 in 2002. Boldt now has 19 multi-hit games this season.
***Christensen's third-inning single was his first hit since April 30.
***The attendance was 2,215.