AUSTIN, Texas — Nebraska’s struggling offense, defined this year mostly by the opportunities it’s failed to capitalize on, wasn’t even in a position to squander any chances at Texas on Sunday.
The Huskers managed two hits and four baserunners in a 2-0 loss, the seventh straight defeat to begin a challenging nonconference schedule. It’s already the second time they’ve been shut out this year after averaging 7.1 runs per game (eighth nationally) and hitting .315 as a team last season.
“We’ve been close in a lot of these games against good teams,” senior Chad Christensen said. “It’s not like we’re getting blown out of the water. We’ve just got to execute a few things and we’re right there.”
Getting over the proverbial hump is the next step. And Longhorn starter Nathan Thornhill made it tough for NU to do that Sunday.
The junior right-hander said he spent Saturday charting Texas pitchers, noticing that the Husker lineup didn’t do much with fastballs down in the strike zone. A bunch of grounders, Thornhill said.
So his plan was to work off his heater all afternoon. It worked.
Senior shortstop Bryan Peters and sophomore second baseman Pat Kelly had Nebraska’s only two hits (both singles), and those came with bases empty and two outs in the third and fifth innings.
The one time the Huskers got their leadoff man on, in the third inning, sophomore catcher Tanner Lubach hit a grounder right to the shortstop on a hit-and-run. It would have been an easy double play, but C.J Hinojosa’s throw to first was wild — and Lubach got tagged out after rounding first.
“Our plan the whole weekend was to keep the fastball down at their knees,” Thornhill said.
The Huskers, who hit .223 during the series sweep at Texas (6-1), faced a new problem each day. They were 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position Friday, they couldn’t execute sacrifice bunts Saturday and they couldn’t square up fastballs Sunday.
And against talented teams — NU’s first four opponents were a combined 18-7 heading into Sunday — your weaknesses tend to get exploited, coach Darin Erstad said.
“If you’re not feeling good at the plate and you’re facing these kind of guys, you’re going to get dominated,” he said.
But despite that, the Huskers still had a chance until the end Sunday, thanks to the performance of senior right-hander Ryan Hander.
Hander worked himself in and out of jams all afternoon. He left a UT runner stranded on third base in the second, fourth and fifth innings. He tied a career high with seven strikeouts, recording back-to-back punchouts to wiggle out of those fourth- and fifth-inning jams.
But Texas had five leadoff men reach base, which proved to be too many opportunities for an offense that’s built to manufacture runs. The Longhorns laid down four sacrifice bunts and stole three bases. Only one of Texas’ seven games thus far (an 8-2 win over NU Friday) has been decided by more than three runs.
The Longhorns took a 1-0 lead in the fourth and added one more in the sixth. The production was more than enough for Thornhill, who needed just 80 pitches in seven innings.
“Once you get your feel and you settle in, you do get into a groove — and that’s the best feeling out there,” he said. “To be able to trust your stuff, and not be thinking or worrying about anything, just letting it go.”
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