Steven M. Sipple: Huskers swing and miss on chance for landmark day, but June holds promise
OMAHA -- It was one of those dreamy days on the diamond. Yes, sir, it was one of those days that a college baseball player might remember for years and years.
Ohio State’s players may remember Sunday forever. The Buckeyes jumped all over each other in a dog pile following their 3-1 triumph against Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament championship game before 17,503 at TD Ameritrade Park.
For the Huskers, it was generally a day they’d like to forget. Their pitching was fine. But not much went right offensively. Yes, sir, for the home team it was basically one gigantic missed opportunity. All those fans on hand. All that energy. All that sunshine. A chance to celebrate the program’s fifth conference tournament championship and first since 2005 when guys like Alex Gordon, Joba Chamberlain, Johnny Dorn, Zach Kroenke and Curtis Ledbetter were creating memories.
Alas, after managing a meager four singles against two hard-throwing Ohio State lefties, Nebraska players talked about flushing this one quickly. Forget it. Move on. That was the theme. And that theme makes sense because if you’re a Husker fan -- even an angry one writing nasty things on social media -- it’s easy to imagine this particular NU team making noise next week in the NCAA Tournament.
Nebraska (31-22) is a virtual lock to be in the 64-team field, which will be announced at 11 a.m. Monday on ESPNU.
“This team isn’t going anywhere,” said Nebraska junior outfielder Joe Acker, who had two of the hits. “We’re going to get back to Lincoln and rest up. We’re going to hopefully find out where we’re going to go for a regional, and we’re going to go win a regional. Right now, it’s hard not to think of today’s game. But after I get off that bus, I’m going to be focused on what’s next for this team.”
That’s the right approach, of course. But still, this was a bummer for Nebraska. It could have been a landmark day for the program. A spark. Something that left an indelible impression. Darin Erstad’s program hadn’t been in a conference tournament championship game since 2014, when it lost to Indiana before 19,000 at this same ball park. The Hoosiers were rolling under head coach Tracy Smith at the time.
In fact, Indiana also beat Nebraska in the 2013 league tournament title game in Minneapolis. That Hoosier team made it to the College World Series. Which brings us back to Sunday. Maybe a third time would be the charm for Erstad. After all, Ohio State (35-25) is a far cry from Indiana in 2013-14. The Buckeyes were the seventh seed here. Yeah, the table was set for a Big Red celebration in downtown Omaha. But those two hard-throwing Buckeye lefties crashed the party.
Maybe Nebraska fans should’ve braced for a long day. After all, the Huskers struggled against left-handed pitching all season.
At any rate, I’ll long remember Ohio State starter Griffan Smith -- a sophomore who had thrown 110 pitches Thursday -- pumping 94 mph fastballs into the sixth inning Sunday. He struck out six and allowed two hits in 5 2/3 innings. Then came junior Andrew Magno to finish the job. He had thrown 35 pitches in his team’s 8-6 win against Minnesota earlier in the day. No problem. He struck out four Huskers and walked two in a 59-pitch outing.
Said Smith: “As a baseball player, you dream of moments like this.”
Said Magno of the big crowd: “I think it kind of helped me. You can’t think because it’s so loud. I could just let go. It freed me up to do that.”
Ah, the crowd and the scene ... it was gorgeous, electric, or at least as electric as one could expect under the circumstances. If you’re a Nebraska fan, perhaps you take solace in the Huskers’ youthful roster. Freshmen Spencer Schwellenbach, Cam Chick and Colby Gomes are potential stars. Same goes for sophomores Aaron Palensky and Jaxon Hallmark.
And, yes, Nebraska freshman right-hander Shay Schanaman of Grand Island was superb Sunday, keeping his team in striking distance with four innings of relief duty before running into trouble in the eighth. Saturday night, freshman lefty Kyle Perry pitched a strong three-plus innings before 11,038 in the big stadium in his hometown.
Bottom line, Erstad’s program appears solid. The Big Ten Tournament will be at TD Ameritrade Park for the next three years, through 2022. Nebraska will break down the door at some point.
But let’s not forget about another big step waiting for this program. That is, winning in the NCAA Tournament. Nebraska is just 1-6 in its previous three NCAA trips. But this bunch seems equipped to make noise in June. Start with pitchers Matt Waldron and Nate Fisher. They’re tough-minded veterans who can go deep into games and preserve a bullpen that’s pretty salty in its own right. The defense is solid.
The offense is pesky. It came on late in the season. But it often lacks pop. There isn’t a first-team all-conference player on the roster. We saw this team’s issues on what could’ve been a dreamy Sunday. It was a chance for NU to take a giant step forward. That’ll have to wait, but maybe not for long.
June holds promise for this team, a chance to flush Sunday for good.