OKLAHOMA CITY — Everyone could see this one coming.
Not that there were many around to watch. Maybe 100 or so sprinkled the stands of the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark Sunday afternoon to watch the Huskers and UConn Huskies play an elimination game. Most Husker fans likely left after a 6-5 loss to Oklahoma State that stretched near midnight the previous night.
At the time, it felt like that one — a game in which the Huskers led 5-0 in the fifth and 5-2 going into the ninth before a three-run home run blast won No. 9 seed Oklahoma State the game — would linger. There would be just around 12 hours time between the end of that and the first pitch of Sunday’s game. An emotional hangover was expected.
An emotional hangover is exactly what happened. Nebraska looked lifeless early. Starting pitcher Reece Eddins threw balls on six of his first seven pitches. It was 5-1 after six. It ended 16-1.
Nebraska’s tournament run is over.
“Crazy turn of events,” head coach Darin Erstad said after. “You’re one out from only needing one win to needing three wins and a quick turnaround. UConn’s been swinging the bat well all tournament and we just had no answer for them on the mound. Offensively I thought we had pitches to hit and we just didn’t put our best swings on them.
“I thought they were actually trying to create some energy when we got here, but the way we are and the depth we have, we’ve got to stay on schedule on the mound. We weren’t able to do that.”
Eddins lasted four innings and a third of a fifth before being replaced with freshman Shay Schanaman. He walked UConn’s leadoff batter to begin the game and gave up a first-pitch solo homer to the leadoff batter to begin the second inning.
As that second-inning shot sailed over left field, tracking towards almost the exact spot Oklahoma State’s Trevor Boone hit his game-winner the night before, senior third baseman Angelo Altavilla’s body sunk.
His hands hit his hips; his head dropped. In the postgame press conference the night before, he grew agitated at the mention of Boone’s hit. This time, he just looked defeated.
“It just sucks,” Altavilla said after the game. “You come so close but it just doesn’t end up the way you want it.”
In the top of the third, Nebraska faced runners on second and third with only one away. It was 2-0 at that point but more damage was looking imminent. Instead, Eddins struck out UConn’s Paul Gozzo. Catcher Luke Roskam dropped the called third strike but rifled the ball to Colby Gomes at first base to beat Gozzo. Gomes beat a UConn runner home to end the frame with a 2-3-1 double play and hold the Huskies scoreless.
It seemed there would be life.
There was none.
Nebraska was sat down in order to end the third. UConn added another run in the fourth.
(Stretching back to the final out of the third inning Saturday night through the end of Sunday’s game, Nebraska got six hits and a walk from its final 53 plate appearances. UConn’s starting pitcher, Colby Dunlop, sat down 24 of the 29 batters he faced in four pitches or less.)
“My change-up, not all of them were competitive but the ones that were, they were swinging at it and they weren’t hitting it,” Dunlop said. “A few just popped up. I think the key was they had a lot of weak contact. They had some hard hits but overall it was pretty soft.”
An RBI single from Altavilla in the bottom of the fourth cut into the deficit and provided what looked like another potential spark, only for UConn to snuff it out and get the run right back in the top of the fifth.
The Huskies ended the day with 22 hits to Nebraska’s five, after out-hitting the Huskers 19-13 in an 8-5 loss Friday. They scored a run in seven of the game’s nine frames and had 11 in the last two. What was different this time? Obviously, Nebraska had Nate Fisher in their Friday meeting and not Sunday, when the Huskers emptied the bullpen and eight guys saw the mound, but UConn hit Fisher, too, and hit him often.
“That’s a really good ball club over there. I don’t know if we’ve got a rabbit’s foot? I went to mass this morning. I have no idea,” UConn head coach Jim Penders said. “They fell for us today. It’s a funny game. We had some soft contact in the grass, they had a lot of balls find the grass and we had one outfield put-out the other day. It was a bizarre game. It finally turned, the luck turned a little bit to the Huskies side today.”
Nebraska’s season ended Saturday night. It’s hard to look at that game in conjunction with Sunday’s and think anything different. That brings with it disappointment. Certainly the lopsided nature of Sunday’s close adds to that in the immediate present, though it probably won’t wipe away an otherwise encouraging season.
A 32-24 campaign featured spells at the top of the Big Ten standings, a thrilling run to the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha and an all-around strong first two days in the Oklahoma City regional. It’s an eight-win improvement over the previous season when the Huskers failed to make the conference tourney field, and still the best showing in a regional since the 2013-14 season.
“I’ve loved a lot of teams we’ve had here,” Erstad said, “I’ve loved this team the most.
“As far as the single fight that they have. We talked about it from the second we’ve been with these guys and they backed it up, man. I mean, you look at our numbers and we had no business being here where we’re at. That’s just a credit to them and them fighting and finding a way to win huge series and getting in the winners’ bracket and coming so close.”
Altavilla was clearly emotional after the game. “I’m so thankful for everything that’s happened,” he said, as red surrounded the eye black on his face. This wasn’t the ending he or any of the other seniors wanted, but Erstad is thankful for them, nonetheless.
“I think what I’m most proud of about (the senior class) is after last year — an awful year, a lot of negativity — these guys had been to regionals twice before that and basically all of them just said, ‘Screw this, it’s not happening, we’re taking these young guys under our wing and doing this the right way,’” Erstad said. “I’m just so proud of them for doing that. We weren’t picked to go to regionals, we were picked sixth in our conference, to get to the conference championship, to get to the winners’ bracket here, go up against a national seed and (be) one out away from advancing, that’s a credit to that group.
“That turnaround from last year is what I’ll be most proud of.”
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.