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Surprise Big 12 Tourney Title in 1999 a Sign of Things to Come for NU

April 08, 2020

Take Me Out to the Ballgame is a multi-part series looking back at Nebraska baseball’s rise to College World Series contenders. | Part One, Part Two, Part Three

John Cole’s leaping catch in left-center field was the final out in Nebraska’s 4-3 victory against No. 9-ranked Baylor at Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City.

The date was May 23, 1999. The victory clinched the Big 12 Tournament title, the Huskers’ first conference title of any type since 1950.

Had Cole not made the catch, two runs likely would have scored. But the point was moot. Nebraska, which had finished 16-9 and fifth during the Big 12 regular season, had won four in a row to improve its record to 45-16 and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA regional—its first since 1985.

The regional was in Columbus, Ohio, where the second-seeded Huskers lost twice to No. 18 Mississippi State, with a victory against Bowling Green in between.

That didn’t diminish their performance in the Big 12 Tournament, however. The appearance was Nebraska’s first time qualifying for the tournament since joining the Big 12.

The Huskers opened against Oklahoma State, and though they had won two of three from Oklahoma State during the regular season, Cowboy starter Matt Smith had held them to a two-run Cole home run late in the 10-2 loss. Smith also had shut down Nebraska the previous season.

This time, he was no match for Chad Wiles. The junior right-hander from Wood River (Neb.) High School, who had followed Scott Frost as the quarterback there and initially walked on to the Nebraska football team, pitched a one-hit, complete-game shutout, 152 pitches, four walks, four strikeouts.

Smith lasted only 4.1 innings and allowed all the runs in a 5-0 Husker victory.

Hitters took over in the second game, a 14-7 victory against Oklahoma, which had defeated top-seed Texas A&M in the first round. Shane Komine, who had been held out because of back issues since late April, lasted only 2.1 innings. But senior right-hander Jarod Bearinger (from Omaha) took over and finished out with the help of a 15-hit Husker attack.

Cole led the way with a triple and three RBIs.

After a day off, Nebraska eliminated No. 4-ranked Texas A&M 8-7—it had been 0-3 against the Aggies during the regular season—with Komine getting the final out in the top of the ninth on a called third strike. The count was 3-and-2. The tying run was on third base.

Winning pitcher R.D. Spiehs, a freshman right-hander from Grand Island, Nebraska, had worked 4.2 innings in relief of senior starter Jay Sirianni. Brandon Penas, a sophomore left-hander also from Grand Island by way of Doane College, walked the one batter he faced to set the stage for Komine, who gave up a two-run single before getting the final strikeout to earn the save. 

Ken Harvey hit a home run and drove in three runs.

Junior left-hander Scott Fries, from Dannebrog, Nebraska, pitched seven innings to earn the final-game victory against Baylor, which the Huskers hadn’t played during the regular season. Wiles pitched the final two innings—giving him 11 scoreless in the tournament—for the save.  

Despite the disappointment of the Columbus Regional, Van Horn’s second season was arguably the best in Nebraska history at that point. 

Harvey led the nation with a .478 batting average, set a school record with 23 home runs, drove in 86, made only one error in 447 chances and earned All-America recognition.

Seven other Huskers with at least 100 official at-bats hit over .300, including Cole, who batted .396 with seven home runs and 46 runs-batted-in. Junior outfielder Adam Shabala batted .373. And senior DH Jeff Hedman hit .371 with 13 home runs and 48 RBIs. Komine led the pitching staff with his 6-2 record and 3.58 ERA. Fries was 8-7 with a 6.79 ERA, Sirianni 6-3 and 6.89. Bearinger (3-1) and Spiehs (5-1) made the most relief appearances, but there was no particular closer.

“It was a season I don’t think anybody would have thought we’d do what we did,” Van Horn said.

The future was bright, with a new stadium being planned.

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