LINCOLN — Nebraska’s Christian DeLeon wasn’t surprised when he got pulled in the fifth inning of his last home start.
The Huskers’ newly minted ace couldn’t keep the ball down in the strike zone, failing to hold a three-run lead against Northwestern. So DeLeon was yanked after 68 pitches, despite the Huskers’ lack of bullpen depth and a league-wide tendency to push starters as long as possible.
DeLeon lasted 413 innings, his shortest outing of the year, giving up eight hits and seven runs — though NU did manage to win the game in 16 innings.
“I knew that I was giving up way too many hits, leaving the balls up,” he said. “I was (mad) at myself just because I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to do.”
DeLeon will be back on the mound Friday against Ohio State (21-10, 5-4 Big Ten) at Haymarket Park, his fifth straight start in a weekend series opener for Nebraska (13-17, 7-2).
His ERA has jumped from 1.69 to 3.93 since he took over the Friday night role. But he’s been more productive than any other Husker starter. And that is what’s troubling as NU approaches the tougher portion of its Big Ten schedule.
Junior Brandon Pierce moved back into the bullpen two weeks ago. Senior Ryan Hander won’t be in the weekend rotation against OSU for the first time this year.
As important as it is for the Husker starters to pitch deep into games — to avoid relying on inconsistent middle relievers and to match the efforts of opponents’ starters — NU coach Darin Erstad, at this point, would rather hand the ball to guys who might lack the stamina but are most likely to get outs.
That’s why left-handers Aaron Bummer (913 innings pitched in nine appearances this season) and Tyler King (1013 innings in nine outings) will start Saturday and Sunday against a Buckeye batting order expected to have as many as five left-handed hitters.
“We’re just going to have to play matchup baseball,” Erstad said. “As we get into some of these conference games coming up where we’re facing some pretty good starting pitchers, we’re going to have to find a way to stay in the game early.”
But Erstad’s proposed mixing and matching approach runs counter to the formula utilized by recent Big Ten champs.
Purdue, which won the regular-season title last year, finished the conference season with its top two starters responsible for 52 percent of the 217 innings pitched in Big Ten play. The Boilermakers’ top five arms accounted for 87 percent of those innings.
The teams that shared the crown in 2011 were the same way. Six pitchers for Michigan State had 92 percent of the Big Ten innings, and six Illinois hurlers pitched 81 percent of the time.
Nebraska, however, can’t afford to shrink its pool of pitchers just yet. It’s still looking for arms to emerge.
The back end of the bullpen — sophomore Josh Roeder and senior Dylan Vogt (one earned run allowed in 1913 combined innings against Big Ten hitters, with 14 strikeouts and no walks) — has been effective. Lefty reliever Zach Hirsch has two wins and a 1.64 ERA in four Big Ten appearances.
That’s about it, though.
DeLeon is hoping he can set a tone that helps others get back on track. No NU starter has pitched into the seventh inning since DeLeon’s win against Illinois on March 22.
“I’m focusing on what I need to do to contribute and help my team win,” DeLeon said. “That’s my main focus this week. Get ahead, stay ahead and put them down.”
ĽNOTES: Nebraska’s game against Ohio State on Friday — originally scheduled to begin at 6:35 p.m. — will start at 4:05 p.m. ... Sophomore left-hander Kyle Kubat, who hasn’t yet pitched this year, could be available out of the bullpen this weekend. ... Senior Josh Scheffert (arm) will be limited to a pinch-hitting role until he’s cleared to throw again after about four weeks. ... Nebraska and Creighton are still working to get Tuesday’s rained-out game rescheduled, Erstad said. ... Ohio State’s pitching staff ranks 10th nationally in ERA (2.51) and seventh in walks allowed (2.3 per game). Opponents are hitting just .218 against the Buckeyes.
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