Omaha – Headed into the bottom of the ninth down by three runs, the No. 20 Nebraska baseball team (38-18) plated four runs in its final at-bat, capped by a walk-off sacrifice fly by Tanner Lubach, on its way to a 7-6 opening-round victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes (30-27) in front of one of the largest crowds in Big Ten Tournament history. The win sets up a 5 p.m. meeting tomorrow with the Michigan State Spartans, who opened the tournament with a 2-1 victory over Illinois.
The victory was the Huskers’ sixth walk-off of the season and marked the 14th time this season the Huskers have won a game when they trailed or were tied after the sixth inning.
After cutting OSU’s lead in half in the fifth with three runs, the Huskers went hitless over the next three innings. With All-American closer Trace Dempsey on the mound in the ninth, freshman Ben Miller snapped the hitless streak with a leadoff single and was replaced on the bases by fellow freshman Quinn McGill. Dempsey then hit Steven Reveles and walked Ryan Boldt to load the bases with no out. With a right hander on the mound, Darin Erstad called on lefty Christian Cox to pinch hit and the junior worked a full count, but struck out for the first out of the inning. Michael Pritchard was up next and worked a four-pitch walk to force home NU’s first run of the inning. With clean-up hitter Pat Kelly due up and the tying run at second base, the Buckeyes turned the ball over to Tyler Giannonatti. Kelly, who was named first-team All-Big Ten for the second straight season on Monday, came through with a two-RBI game-tying single, his third hit of the day. The Buckeyes then intentionally walked Blake Headley to load the bases and setup a potential double-play ball, but the game was not meant for extra innings as Lubach lifted a 1-0 offering from Giannonatti into shallow center field and Pritchard beat a throw home by Troy Montgomery to complete the Husker comeback.
The improbable comeback marked the fourth time this season the Huskers have defeated the Buckeyes in their final at-bat of the game.
Kelly was 3-for-5 with three RBIs to lead the Huskers, while Pritchard chipped in a pair of RBIs without getting a hit. Kelly leads the Huskers with 21 multi-hit games and 16 multi-RBI games on the year.
The ninth-inning rally wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Nebraska’s bullpen. Following OSU’s six-run fourth inning, three Husker relievers combined to allow just one hit over 5.0 scoreless innings. Luke Bublitz tossed a scoreless fifth before Jeff Chesnut and Austin Christensen each threw 2.0 innings of relief, including a pair of perfect innings from Christensen, who earned the win to improve to 3-0 on the year.
After the teams combined to score no runs on four hits through the first three innings, the Buckeyes broke the game open in the top of the fourth. OSU sent 11 batters to the plate and scored six runs on six hits. Aaron Gretz got the scoring started when he dropped a base-loaded double on the left-field line that scored two runs. The Buckeyes then executed a squeeze bunt and NU starter Chance Sinclair saw his day come to an end after Gretz scored on a wild pitch. Bob Greco took the mound and gave up three straight singles that scored a pair of runs before getting Pat Porter to bounced into an inning-ending fielder’s choice.
The Huskers cut OSU’s lead in half in the bottom of the fifth with three runs, starting with an RBI double by Jake Placzek. Pritchard then hit a dribbler out in front of the plate and OSU Tanner Tully tried to cut down Reveles at home, but the Husker shortstop slid under Gretz’s tag for the second run of the inning. Kelly kept the runs coming with an RBI single, before Tully got Headley to fly out for the second out of the inning. Tully, the 2014 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, then walked Lubach to load the bases, just his seventh walk of the season in 91.0 innings of work. With the tying runs on bases, Austin Darby stepped to the plate and was unable to keep the rally going with his third strikeout of the game.
Nebraska and Michigan State meet in tomorrow night’s winner bracket game at 5 p.m. on the Big Ten Network, with the winner getting Friday off and moving to Saturday’s 9 a.m. game against a team from the loser’s bracket.