Nebraska baseball beats UConn for first NCAA tournament victory in five years

Nebraska baseball beats UConn for first NCAA tournament victory in five years
Alex Henwood lost a tooth after a freak play at first base. Z LONG/THE WORLD-HERALD

OKLAHOMA CITY — Robbie Palkert sat in the bowels of Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark and let out a long sigh. This was a load these Nebraska upperclassmen could finally drop.

So many numbers pointed to another clunker in an NCAA regional. The Huskers struck out a season-high 16 times. They allowed 19 hits, with their senior starter enduring one of his worst outings of the season. An early three-run hole looked mountainous.

But third-seeded Nebraska found some of the magic it used to wield at Bricktown from its Big 12 glory days. The Huskers shook off their chronic struggles against left-handed pitching and rose up to deliver an 8-5 victory Friday over second-seeded Connecticut that was as gritty as it was relieving.

“I think all of us kind of put that on our backs and we were saying, ‘No, we’re done with this,'” said Palkert, a junior reliever. “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. We’re ready to fight.”

The postseason win is NU’s first in five years, snapping a five-game regional skid dating back to 2014. It last won its regional opener in 2008, and hadn’t done that on the road in 19 years. Erstad, in his eighth year as coach, improves to 2-6 in the NCAA tournament.

The Huskers and senior righty Matt Waldron will face top-seeded Oklahoma State at 7 p.m. Saturday. They are also guaranteed to play again Sunday at the home of the Triple-A Oklahoma City Dodgers.

So how in the world did Nebraska (32-22) survive a UConn team that collected at least two hits in the first seven innings and six extra-base hits?

Issuing no walks helped. So did coaxing four double plays, including three in the first four innings. Every infielder made some sort of stop or catch that directly or indirectly saved a run.

“We gave up some loud outs and loud hits, but they just kept attacking,” Erstad said. “When you do that, you’ve got a fighting chance.”

Some long-awaited success against a southpaw also allowed some margin for error. Huskies junior ace and pro prospect Mason Feole lasted five-plus frames and 108 pitches while giving up a season-worst seven earned runs. Husker hitters capitalized on hanging sliders and other offspeed pitches that didn’t break, especially in a four-run third inning when they went ahead for good.

“We give the lead back in what seemed like 5 minutes,” UConn coach Jim Penders said. “Just bang-bang-bang, they were squaring some balls up off of him.”

The bottom of the first inning alone brought a game’s worth of drama. UConn led off with a single and dropped a sacrifice bunt to the first-base side. With second baseman Alex Henwood covering the bag, the batting helmet of the sprinting runner flew off just as Henwood was tracking the throw into his glove. The ball instead struck him in the mouth and knocked out at least two teeth, forcing him to leave the game.

Erstad said Henwood, hitting .279 with two homers this spring, is tough enough that he can’t be ruled out to play Saturday.

“He’s pretty messed up; it’s pretty swollen,” Erstad said. “Just a weird, freak thing.”

With two on and nobody out, the Huskies hit into a double play on a popped up bunt. Then catcher Pat Winkel followed with his team-leading seventh homer of the season on a blast to right-center.

The 2-0 lead didn’t last long in a game that featured just one 1-2-3 half inning. Nebraska senior Angelo Altavilla led off the second with a shot that landed just beyond the “350” sign in left field. UConn responded with a pair of RBI singles from David Langer and John Toppa in the bottom half.

But a four-run third gave Nebraska its first lead in its last 40 innings of NCAA regional action dating back to 2014. The first six Huskers reached — five on singles — including RBI knocks from Cam Chick, Spencer Schwellenbach and Altavilla.

“A lot of times, the bats aren’t really there against lefties,” said Altavilla, the senior third baseman. “But it’s regional time and you have to do what you can to win. I think we came out and we showed that right away against a pretty good pitcher.”

The teams traded runs in the fifth. NU’s Gunner Hellstrom dropped a two-out, run-scoring single to center in the top half, then Christian Fedko ripped his own RBI hit to left a few minutes later for UConn.

The American Athletic Conference reps didn’t score again, with ace reliever Palkert firing 3⅓ innings of scoreless ball on 57 pitches. He scattered five hits and struck out four.

“They can have little broken-bat singles up the middle or singles in the six hole or they can smash balls off the wall,” Palkert said. “But if nobody’s on base, it doesn’t matter. … You can’t be discouraged if you give up a hit.”

The Huskers offense added a run in the sixth on a two-out Aaron Palensky RBI single to go up 7-5 and another in the ninth on a run-scoring Joe Acker double to left. Colby Gomes worked the ninth to earn his 13th save.

It added up to the first win for a Nebraska team intent on flipping its unpleasant recent narrative into something memorable.

“Pretty much standard issue for this version of the Huskers,” Erstad said. “When you think something’s going to happen, the opposite happens.”

Husker baseball notes: Missing teeth may not keep Alex Henwood out of the regionals

OKLAHOMA CITY — Darin Erstad picked his moment, then lobbed a joke to Alex Henwood.

What, you can stay in the game with a separated shoulder but not with some missing teeth?

Henwood, the senior second baseman, left Friday’s NCAA regional game in the bottom of the first inning when he was struck in the face by a ball. While covering first base on a bunt play, he lost track of the throw when the runner’s helmet fell across his sight line.

Erstad, Nebraska’s coach, said Henwood was taken to a dentist and had one tooth reconstructed. Another was lost and left a “big, gaping hole.”

Henwood stayed in during last Saturday’s Big Ten tournament semifinal after separating his shoulder and popping it back in.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he wants to try and play (Saturday),” Erstad said. “I think they said he might be able to play.”

The injury isn’t unlike what happened to senior infielder Angelo Altavilla late last season, when a high foul popup blew back into play and struck him in the mouth.

“I don’t know if (his) was as bad as mine,” Altavilla said. “But yeah, he was still in a horrible situation. He’s a fighter and he’s not going to want to go home or lay over.”

The injury prompted outfielder Mojo Hagge to enter the game in left as Jaxon Hallmark filled in at second. The junior who usually sits against lefties earned a bunt single and walk.

“It was a little bit sooner than I expected for this game,” Hagge said. “But as soon as (Erstad) told to grab my glove and go out to left field, I was ready to go and just go out there and compete.”

Waldron for Saturday

Erstad mulled the decision during the seven-hour bus ride to Oklahoma City. Ultimately, he felt starting Nate Fisher was the way to go.

Sure, the senior lefty had been fighting an illness — “I don’t know, the sniffles or something,” Erstad deadpanned — but his 2.88 ERA was still the best among Husker starters. The Yutan native was rested and able to handle the moment.

“All those things kind of played into it,” Erstad said. “It just made sense.”

And while UConn pelted Fisher for a career-worst 13 hits, three double plays helped him limit the damage to five earned runs in a game Nebraska still won.

That leaves regular Friday ace Matt Waldron to go Saturday. The Omaha Westside grad threw 121 pitches last Thursday, then 59 more in Sunday’s Big Ten tourney title game.

Said Erstad: “We just felt that Matt would be a better matchup for somebody else.”

Future probables

Both top-seeded Oklahoma State and fourth-seeded Harvard threw their top pitchers Friday. What either does Saturday is less obvious.

Harvard’s most likely candidate is senior righty Ian Miller, who has made 11 starts this spring. But he also owns a 6.04 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio that is nearly even (39-37). Eight-game starter and sophomore righty Buddy Hayward (4.13 ERA) is another option.

For Oklahoma State, ace Jensen Elliott is the only pitcher on the staff with more than 63 innings pitched this spring. The most likely Saturday choice appears to be sophomore lefty Parker Scott (3-1, 1.45 ERA in 37⅓ and six starts). Redshirt freshman righty Brett Standlee (3-1, 4.14 in 63 and 10 starts) is another possibility.

NCAA Regionals: Nebraska vs. Oklahoma St.

When: 7 p.m. Saturday

Where: Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City

Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM in Nebraska City