OKLAHOMA CITY — Darin Erstad sat down at the dais, gave his opening remarks on a wild first game to the Oklahoma City/Stillwater Regional, and then said he has pretty much stopped trying to figure his team out.
This one, a matchup with UConn (36-23) and left-handed pitcher Mason Feole, figured to be a pitcher’s duel. Nebraska can’t hit lefties. Or so the narrative said. And the Huskers were rolling out Nate Fisher—7-3 this season with a 2.88 ERA. A barn-burner seemed unlikely.
And yet, what Husker fans inside Bricktown Ballpark were treated to Friday afternoon was a combined 32 hits, 13 runs and only one error. UConn sprayed a season-best 19 hits. Nebraska struck out 16 times and still managed 13 hits. A four-run third powered Nebraska to an 8-5 victory and its first opening regional win since 2008.
“Pretty much standard issue for this version of the Huskers,” Erstad said. “When you think something’s going to happen, the opposite happens.”
The Huskies’ first two batters reached base. Then a double-play wiped two off the board. Then a homer gave UConn an early two-run lead. Second baseman Alex Henwood had two bottom teeth knocked out in the frame and had to leave the game.
“It wasn’t ideal,” Erstad said.
But Nebraska answered with a solo shot from third baseman Angelo Altavilla in the top of the second. UConn added two more runs in the bottom of the inning before the Huskers exploded for four in the top of the third. UConn cut a two-run lead to one in the bottom of the fifth and the Huskers got it right back in the top of the sixth.
Momentum-killers. Relief man Robbie Palkert faced runners on second and third in the bottom of the sixth and a full count at the plate and escaped the inning without surrendering a run.
“That was a shutdown inning for Robbie and that was huge,” Erstad said. “Nate was able to do that as well after we scored four runs. So, from that standpoint, absolutely it’s a huge situation to get a zero there and get a shutdown inning and keep the momentum.”
The Huskers could have hung their head on the 10 batters they stranded or the 16 times they were sat down by Husky pitchers—that one run in the sixth inning could have been more; the Huskers had the bases loaded and stranded all three guys—but the offense did enough and the defense did its job.
“The reason we won was because we didn’t walk anybody,” said Palkert, who picked up the win in three-and-a-third scoreless innings with four punch-outs. “They can pound out 18 hits, 19 hits, but it doesn’t matter if nobody else is on base. They can have broken-bat singles up the middle or singles up the six-hole or they can smash balls off the wall but if nobody’s on base, it doesn’t matter.”
And it didn’t. Nebraska had no errors. Nebraska didn’t walk a single batter. Nebraska didn’t give anything away.
Huskers made highlight plays all over the infield all day long. Altavilla ended that sixth inning with a bare-handed snag and throw across his body from third-base line to first to beat the runner. First baseman Colby Gomes had a diving snag down the first-base line and then won a foot race to the bag to end a scoreless seventh.
After pounding 13 hits and five runs on Fisher, Husky batters said Palkert changed the game because he was unafraid to throw his secondary stuff in less-than-ideal situations. Left fielder John Toppa said Palkert was the best pitcher on the field on Friday.
“You can’t be discouraged if you give up a hit,” Palkert said. “It does not matter. It’s all about that run column. And we came out on top so that’s what it’s all about.”
Every Husker that stepped to the plate had a hit. Catcher Gunner Hellstrom led things with three hits in five appearances. Altavilla had a team-high two RBIs. It only took two innings to figure out that elusive left-handed pitcher.
“He started to throw a little more off-speed in my opinion,” Altavilla said. “He left a lot of sliders up and we had, I think, three straight hits through the six-hole and that was huge. That’s when we got those four in the third inning. So I don’t know if we really switched anything a whole lot in our lineup, but he just started to leave pitches up and that’s when we do damage.”
Now the Huskers can scoreboard watch for a night and get ready for the winner’s bracket on Saturday. They’re assured to stay in Oklahoma City through Sunday. The winner of Oklahoma State-Harvard will play Nebraska Saturday night at 7 p.m. CT. Maybe they’ll celebrate this. There’s certainly reason for a sigh of relief.
“I know Angelo and I have been to three regionals and up until now we were 0-4, and yeah, we were pissed off,” Palkert said. “I think all of us kind of put that on our backs and said, ‘No this isn’t… we’re done with this.’ We hate seeing in the news, ‘Darin Erstad can’t win a regional game.’ That’s just not true. This team can win baseball games. This team can win a regional and we’re ready to fight.”
Maybe they won’t scoreboard watch. Maybe a team that’s won eight of its last 11 doesn’t care who’s in its path next. Who knows?
“I just know they’re going to keep fighting,” Erstad says.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.