Take Me Out to the Ballgame is a multi-part series looking back at Nebraska baseball’s rise to College World Series contenders. | Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11
Nebraska was coming to bat in the bottom of the sixth inning, after Arizona State had taken a 3-2 lead in the top of the inning on a two-run double.
The runs would be the Sun Devils’ last.
The date: June 17, 2005.
The place: Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium.
Attendance: 24,904, a College World Series Session-Two record.
Arizona State Coach Pat Murphy said it seemed as if all but a handful were red-clad.
Andy Gerch led off the bottom of the sixth with a single. Ryan Bohanan walked. And Daniel Bruce was hit by a pitch on an 0-2 count to load the bases.*
Murphy went to the bullpen, as he had done in the third inning.
Ryan Wehrle singled in two runs and the Huskers regained the lead.
After Bruce was out at third on an attempted double steal, Jeff Christy singled home Wehrle.
The runs would be the Huskers’ last.
Starter Joba Chamberlain pitched the seventh then gave way to Zach Kroenke, who got two outs and allowed a double, before Brett Jensen came on to retire the final four batters.
Final score: Nebraska 5, Arizona State 3.
The Huskers improved to 57-13, the most wins in school history. They had tied the school record for wins by coming back from an opening-game loss in the Big 12 Tournament to Texas Tech to win five in a row and the tournament title—to go with the regular-season championship.
They were third among the top 16 going into the NCAA tournament, which meant the regional was in Lincoln. They swept it, defeating Illinois-Chicago 8-6 and rival Creighton 10-8 and 10-2.
They also swept the super-regional in Lincoln, defeating Miami 3-1 and 6-3.
The second Miami game drew an overflow crowd of 8,711 to Hawks Field at Haymarket Park, the fourth in a row there with over 8,000 fans on-hand.
Nebraska went to Omaha having won 10 in a row.
On June 17, 2005, the Huskers had reached the highest point in school baseball history. Four days later, associate head coach and pitching coach Rob Childress would say that “the benchmark for the program has been set by the 2005 team.”
At that point, the dream season had ended. Nebraska had lost to Florida 7-4 and then, in a rematch, to Arizona State 8-7 in 11 innings. The Huskers had scored four runs in the top of the ninth, three on a Gerch home run, to take a 7-5 lead. But Arizona State scored twice in the bottom of the ninth, the tying run coming on a two-out, solo home run by Jeff Larish, his third of the game.
In-state players were the foundation of the 2005 team. In addition to the three starting pitchers at the College World Series—Chamberlain, Johnny Dorn and Kroenke—five position starters were from Nebraska: Gerch, Bruce, Wehrle, Christy and Alex Gordon.
Though he struggled against Florida, Dorn, a freshman All-American, led the staff with a 12-2 record and 2.16 earned-run-average. Chamberlain, a sophomore transfer from Nebraska-Kearney, was 10-2 with a 2.81 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 118.2 innings—and only 33 walks. Kroenke (7-2, 2.78) and Brian Duensing (8-0, 3.00), another from in-state, were the other season starters.
Brett Jensen was the closer, with 16 saves, a 3-5 record and 1.96 ERA. Tony Watson, who made 18 relief appearances and five starts, was 6-1 with a 2.83 ERA.
Gordon batted .372 with 19 home runs and 66 runs-batted-in and collected more honors than mentioned here. He was an All-American for a second time. He was the ABCA National Player of the Year and the Big 12 Player of the Year as well as winning the Golden Spikes Award and Dick Howser Trophy.
He was the second player selected overall in the major league draft.
Gerch batted .364 with four home runs and 35 RBIs. Junior Brandon Buckman batted .335, Bruce .322 and Curtis Ledbetter .319 with 13 home runs and 55 RBIs.
Nebraska had the perfect balance, a .302 team batting average to back up a pitching staff with a 2.69 ERA and opponents’ batting .227 against it.
Less than 24 hours after the “benchmark” comment, Childress was hired by Texas A&M Athletic Director Bill Byrne to be the Aggies head coach—Will Bolt, who had been a volunteer assistant at Nebraska, went with him—changing the staff dynamic.
Still, optimism was high. And the Huskers would advance to NCAA regionals each of the next three seasons, playing host to two of the three. They won 40-plus games those two seasons, with 17 conference wins.
A measure of the national respect Nebraska baseball had earned with its College World Series appearances was reflected in the NCAA bid it received in 2007 despite a 30-25 record (14-13 in the Big 12) when it headed to Tempe.
But as with the other two regionals, the Huskers couldn’t move on to a super-regional. The dream run was over, with losing conference records in the last three seasons of Big 12 membership. Nebraska wouldn’t play in an NCAA regional again until 2014, Darin Erstad’s third season as head coach.
*Bruce was hit by pitches 67 times during his Husker career, including 28 as a freshman.