MINNEAPOLIS — Nebraska coach Darin Erstad gathered his team at the hotel Friday morning, a few hours before its elimination game, and scripted the Huskers' potential run to a Big Ten tournament title.
Four wins in three days, starting with Friday afternoon. Erstad confidently explained his plan.
The players looked back at him. Nodded. Not much chatter.
Erstad wasn't sure what to make of the reaction. But if Friday's 7-4 win against No. 4 seed Minnesota is any indication, these Huskers aren't ready to quit on the season, despite how daunting the road to a championship may be.
“We were excited to get back out on the field (Friday), (to have) another opportunity to go out there and show what we can do on the baseball field,” sophomore second baseman Pat Kelly said. “We're not ready to be done yet.”
To stay alive for one more day, Nebraska must beat both No. 2 seed Ohio State and No. 1 seed Indiana, starting with the Buckeyes at 3:35 p.m. Saturday. Two NU wins would force a winner-take-all title game Sunday at Target Field. NU likely won't make the NCAA tournament without the league's automatic bid.
But the No. 3 seed Huskers do have No. 1 starter Christian DeLeon left for Saturday — what was part of Erstad's for-the-title blueprint.
Senior Ryan Hander took the mound against Minnesota, finding out Friday morning that he'd be starting for the first time since April 6. He responded.
He threw 95 pitches (the most since March 8), grunting louder and breathing heavier the deeper into the game he went.
Hander ran out of gas in the fifth, giving up a three-run homer to junior catcher Matt Halloran, which cut NU's lead to 6-4.
But reliever Luke Bublitz took over from there against the tiring Gophers, who had defeated Illinois 3-1 earlier in the day. The junior right-hander needed 30 pitches (23 strikes) during 3 1⁄3 scoreless innings. It was the best he's thrown all year, Erstad said.
Kelly successfully completed the turn on a double play in the seventh for Bublitz. The next pitch, senior shortstop Bryan Peters dove to his right to corral a one-hopper and senior Kash Kalkowski dug out the low throw to end the frame.
“That was special,” Bublitz said. “For me, that was my plan. Just attack the zone and let my defense work. They played outstanding behind me.”
Nebraska's hitters gave their pitchers enough support, erupting for six runs on five hits in the fourth inning. That's when they knocked freshman starter Dalton Sawyer out of the game. He'd hurt himself by throwing away a pickoff attempt and fumbling a safety squeeze.
But the biggest blow was Kelly's three-run blast to left field, a 383-footer with two outs that put NU up 6-0. Kelly was looking for a fastball all the way.
“With two strikes, basically, they just tell us to fight,” Kelly said. “I put a good swing on one there.”
The Huskers (27-29) added one more in the seventh. But aside from the six-run fourth, they were 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position. They stranded a runner on second base in four innings.
But Hander kept Minnesota (32-22) off the scoreboard until the NU hitters could break through.
He used his curveball to strike out back-to-back hitters in the second inning, escaping a first-and-third jam. Two more runners reached with two outs an inning later, but he wiggled out of that threat by getting Halloran to tap a low curveball right back to the mound.
Hander said he was just glad he could help the team.
“My class, the past four years, we haven't made it to a regional, and that's in our sights right now,” Hander said. “We just want to keep going after it game by game.”
Nebraska will play its second elimination game of the tournament at 3:35 p.m. Saturday. If the Huskers win, they'll play again about one hour after the conclusion of the first game.
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