Left-handed pitchers were Nebraska’s kryptonite throughout the season, and two dominant performances from Ohio State lefties shut down the Husker offense in a 3-1 championship game loss.
“Those two lefties that threw on the mound on extremely short rest did a good job,” Nebraska head coach Darin Erstad said after the game. “That’s been our weakness all year.”
Ohio State pitcher Griffan Smith, pitching on just three days rest, overpowered the Nebraska offense early in the game. The Huskers managed baserunners in each of the first three innings, but all reached with two outs and never advanced past first.
Senior Mike Waldron made his second start of the tournament as well, despite throwing 100-plus pitches on Wednesday. He started shakily as Ohio State’s first two batters reaching base followed by the Buckeyes knocking in the game’s first run on a single. He rebounded for a better second inning and ran into trouble in the third, but kept the score at 1-0.
“He was pretty adamant about wanting the baseball, being a senior, I was like, ‘Let’s go,’” Erstad said. “It was three days rest, I was fine with that, and I thought we kept it in a respectable pitch count area.”
Three innings was enough for Waldron’s tired arm, but he struck out three batters and kept the Buckeyes to one run. His twin brother Mike replaced him, as he did on Wednesday, and once again struggled. Mike Waldron’s two batters both singled, knocking him out of the game and the Big Ten Tournament without recording a single out.
With runners on first and third, freshman Shay Schanaman inherited a mess. Despite having thrown just 16 innings all year, he managed to nearly get out of the inning unscathed. After a popup, he produced a fly ball to right field and the throw by sophomore Aaron Palensky was almost perfect, as the Buckeye runner was called out at the plate.
A video replay showed junior catcher Luke Roskam missed the tag by a matter of inches and overturned the call, putting Ohio State up 2-0 after four innings.
“We had him picked off [at] first before that and dropped the ball,” Erstad said. “Those are the things in these types of games when you’re not getting a lot of hits and guys on, we’ve got to finish those plays off.”
Nebraska hitters couldn’t get anything going against Smith in the fourth and fifth innings, but a total of 199 pitches in four days finally got to him in the sixth. Freshman designated hitter Cam Chick reached on an error and walks to senior third baseman Angelo Altavilla and freshman shortstop Spencer Schwellenbach loaded the bases with two outs.
Sophomore catcher Gunner Hellstrom entered the game as a pinch hitter and managed a walk against Ohio State relief pitcher Andrew Magno. Senior second baseman Alex Henwood followed with a fly-out to center, but the Huskers pulled the score within one.
With Smith out of the game, Nebraska’s offensive confidence seemed to return. Junior outfielder Joe Acker led off the seventh inning with a single and freshman first baseman Colby Gomes finessed a walk afterwards.
A sacrifice bunt then put two runners in scoring position before a Chick strikeout brought Palensky to the plate. A bouncing ground ball to third base narrowly caught him out at first, but the ensuing video replay couldn’t differentiate whether the ball or runner arrived first and the Buckeyes retained their 2-1 lead.
“I was pretty confident that I was wrong, but it was pretty close so we had to check,” Erstad said.
The eighth inning wasn’t fruitful for Nebraska, leaving its championship hopes down to a potential ninth-inning comeback.
In the midst of Nebraska’s furious comeback effort, Schanaman did his part by throwing four scoreless innings before allowing a walk and an error to start the eighth inning. Gomes replaced him on the mound, but a sacrifice fly brought in an important insurance run for the Buckeyes, giving them a 3-1 lead.
Magno found a second wind in the ninth inning, striking out all three Huskers batters to slam the door on Nebraska’s hopes of a conference championship. However, this will not be the end of the road for Nebraska, as the Huskers are expected to receive an at-large bid into the NCAA Baseball Tournament tomorrow morning.
“It’s hard not to think about today’s game, but after I get off that bus, I’m going to be focused on what’s next for this team,” Acker said. “We’re going to flush this game and wherever we get picked to go play, that’s what we’re going to be worried about next.”