Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Huskers Win Opening Game of Big Ten Tournament After Back-and-Forth Seventh Inning, Clutch Defensive Plays

May 24, 2023

In the bottom of the seventh inning, the crowd at Charles Schwab Field appeared to turn their cheers toward Rutgers pitcher Ben Gorski.

That wasn’t because of an influx of Scarlet Knights supporters to Omaha. It was certainly a pro-Nebraska group, watching the Huskers aim for an opening win in the Big Ten Tournament. However, after Rutgers ace Christian Coppola exited and the next pitcher allowed a game-tying homer, Gorski entered with hopes of limiting further damage.

He got the next two batters out before running into struggles. Gorski allowed a two-out single, then issued back-to-back walks to load the bases. Shortstop Brice Matthews approached the plate with a chance to give his team the lead, prompting fans to rise. Gorski walked him to score the go-ahead run. He put Casey Burnham in an 0-2 count after that, but hit him to end the plate appearance. To cap things off, he walked Max Anderson, making it a 9-6 Husker lead.

Gorski’s outing ended at that point, having issued four walks and a hit-by-pitch to a string of five batters. Most fans remained standing, cheering for every single ball and expressing disappointment — perhaps disbelief — for every called strike.

The sequence that made the difference was one the Huskers didn’t need to swing the bat to pull off. They held onto that lead over the final two innings, winning their opening game of the conference tournament 9-7. It was a win that featured Nebraska taking an early lead, losing it, regaining it and making several key defensive plays late.

“I’m proud of our guys for just staying in the fight really, because that game was pretty topsy-turvy, ups and downs there from from both sides of it,” Nebraska head coach Will Bolt said postgame. “We had some guys that have been really good for us that weren’t great today, but we had some guys pick them up as well. And that’s what you got to have to win a tournament like that, you’ve got to have some guys step up.”

Nebraska struck first in the opening inning, although it almost didn’t happen. Anderson was called out at first base after a two-out swinging bunt, but the close play was reviewed and umpires saw enough to overturn it. That allowed for Gabe Swansen to draw a walk, and Charlie Fischer followed with a three-run homer into the bullpen in left field.

“Obviously it’s great that it went out,” Fischer said. “But at the end of the day, I was just trying to have a team at-bat, just pass it to Josh [Caron] behind me and keep the thing going.”

The next three innings went by scoreless, but not without action. After a hitless first inning, Rutgers got one in each of the next three despite still being held off the scoreboard. Nebraska put two runners on in the bottom of the second and loaded the bases in the third, but couldn’t add to its lead.

Emmett Olson faltered on the mound in the top of the fifth. He walked two batters to start the frame, and a sac fly two batters later brought in Rutgers’ first run. Back-to-back hits followed, the second a game-tying double.

Corbin Hawkins entered, preventing further damage and shutting Rutgers down in the sixth inning as well. Meanwhile, Coppola finished his strong day, not allowing a hit from the fourth to the sixth inning.

Hawkins exited after Rutgers started the seventh with a hit and successful sacrifice bunt. Shay Schanaman was the next out of the bullpen. After the first batter he faced reached, he gave out three consecutive free passes — two walks and a hit-by-pitch — to give Rutgers a 5-3 lead. Schanaman forced fly balls from the next two Scarlet Knights, the first a sacrifice to score one more run.

Before Rutgers gave out several walks of its own, Nebraska found success in a more typical fashion. Grant Besser started the bottom of the seventh on the mound, and his first pitch hit Burnham. That was the 20th time this season he’d been hit, before the 21st occurrence came later in the frame. Anderson brought a familiar sight as well, hitting his 20th double of the year down the left field line. To cap off the game-tying sequence, Gabe Swansen smashed a home run for the 18th time in 2023.

The Scarlet Knights did much of the heavy lifting for the next trio of runs in the inning, as the Huskers just stayed disciplined at the plate and took advantage of their opponent’s control issues. Bolt praised the competitiveness of his team in quickly bouncing back from the deficit.

“If you try to ride the wave of chasing what the scoreboard says, then you’re going to be sad and then you’re going to be happy and then you’re going to be down and you’re going to be up,” Bolt said. “We try to leave that to the people in the stands because we’re the ones that can kind of somewhat control what happens in the game.”

Nebraska didn’t bring much of a threat to extend its lead in the eighth, but Rutgers’ offense kept pushing. Kyle Perry faced four batters in the eighth inning before being pulled, allowing a walk, double and RBI single. To try and stop the trend of crooked numbers, the Huskers moved to Will Walsh. The next batter hit a ball off the ground that Dylan Carey hopped to catch before making the throw to second base. Nebraska got that out, and also made the throw to first in time. After review, it stood as an inning-ending, run-saving double play.

Carey was defensively tested yet again in the ninth. Rutgers snuck a two-out single by him, bringing the tying run to the plate. That was pinch hitter Maximus Martin, who lined out straight into the glove of Carey.

Beyond his pure baseball talent, Bolt said the third baseman “cares an awful lot,” a key tool for a great defender.

“A really important piece about being a good defender is just being very selfless because you’ve got to stay locked into the moment,” Bolt said. “There were some moments that maybe could have gotten away from him, based on letting his own performance affect the way he played defense. And he certainly didn’t do that. Shows a lot of mental toughness for a young man to step up and make a play like that.”

Nebraska now moves on to a Thursday night matchup with top-seeded Maryland, a team that took two of three games in a series win over the Huskers earlier this month.

“They’re the conference champions for a reason,” Bolt said. “They got a really, really deep lineup. They’re gonna have their pitching back lined up tomorrow against us. They’re very, very well-coached. It’s gonna be it’s gonna be a tough matchup and we know that, but we feel like we’ve got a good team too.”

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Tags: Baseball