Nebraska baseball falls to Ohio State in the Big Ten baseball tournament championship

Nebraska baseball falls to Ohio State in the Big Ten baseball tournament championship
Nebraska's Aaron Palensky reacts after replay determines he was out at first base with the bases loaded. Z LONG/THE WORLD-HERALD

The hooting and hollering from Ohio State’s clubhouse carried faintly into the room where Nebraska players tried to explain what just happened.

An overturned call here or a clutch hit there and the Huskers could have been the ones celebrating a Big Ten tournament title Sunday.

Two critical video reviews went Ohio State’s way — one on a play at the plate that added a Buckeye run in the fourth inning and another on a bang-bang play at first that would have created a Husker score. Two Ohio State pitchers overcame mounting workloads to extend Nebraska’s woes against left-handers.

It all added up to a 3-1 victory for the tourney’s No. 7 seed, which ultimately sent home a roaring and hostile crowd of 17,503 — the second-largest number to watch a college baseball game this season — wondering what could have been.

“Man, Husker Nation was strong today,” Ohio State coach Greg Beals said. “No doubt about it. And I think there was something in that crowd that helped us.”

The Buckeyes produced a run off surprise starter Matt Waldron in the first while their pitcher, Griffan Smith, was dominant in 5 2⁄3 innings. They added another run on challenged call at home plate in the fourth to go ahead for good.

Ohio State, with an RPI of 136 entering the day, needed the victory to clinch its third NCAA regional berth in four seasons. Nebraska — seeking its first league tournament crown since 2005 in the Big 12 — is already assured of playing into next weekend. The Huskers will watch the selection show Monday to learn their destination.

“Right now it’s hard not to think about today’s game,” NU outfielder Joe Acker said. “But after we get on that bus and after I get off that bus, I’m going to be just focused on what’s next for this team.”

Nebraska (31-22) brought back Waldron on short rest to start the tournament finale after the senior threw 121 pitches Wednesday. On what would normally be his “bullpen day,” the Omaha Westside graduate allowed a leadoff single and walk before Brady Cherry grounded a 0-2 offering into left field for an RBI single in the first. The normal Friday ace kept the Buckeyes off the board the rest of his three innings and 59 pitches.

Nebraska coach Darin Erstad was adamant after Waldron’s Wednesday start that he wouldn’t throw again until regionals. But the pitcher made his case Sunday morning.

“I got convinced and talked into that one,” Erstad said. “He was pretty adamant about wanting the baseball. And being a senior, it was like, ‘Let’s go.’ ”

The fifth-seeded Huskers ran into trouble when Mike Waldron gave up consecutive first-pitch singles to begin the fourth trailing 1-0.

Grand Island freshman Shay Schanaman came on and nearly wiggled out of the jam. He worked a popout, then No. 9 hitter Nick Erwin sent a ball to right fielder Aaron Palensky, who appeared to throw out a tagging Buckeye at home plate. But video review overturned the call, as the swipe by catcher Luke Roskam missed the sliding runner and pushed the Ohio State lead to 2-0.

The other replay came in the seventh with Nebraska down 2-1.

Acker singled and Colby Gomes walked to open the inning. They moved into scoring position on a sacrifice bunt and stayed there with two outs. Palensky then hit a chopper to third and was called out at first on a tight play. Though Nebraska challenged that Palensky beat the ball to the bag, the decision was upheld.

“I was pretty confident that I was wrong,” Erstad said. “But it was that close; we had to check.”

Said Ohio State’s Cherry: “I didn’t think either of (the reviews) were going to go our way just based on the fact that there were so many Husker fans out there.”

Ohio State and its depleted bullpen, meanwhile, received a major boost from Smith, its regular Sunday starter. The sophomore left-hander worked quickly and efficiently three days after throwing 110 pitches against Maryland, surrendering a two-out baserunner in four of his first five innings.

A one-out fielding error by shortstop Zach Dezenzo opened the door for Nebraska in the sixth.

Angelo Altavilla and Spencer Schwellenbach worked two-out walks, prompting OSU to surprise Nebraska by bringing in another overworked lefty in relief. Closer Andrew Magno, who threw 32 pitches hours earlier in an 8-6 semifinal win over Minnesota, walked pinch-hitter Gunner Hellstrom to force in a run and cut its deficit to 2-1. Alex Henwood flew out to center to end the rally.

Smith finished with 89 pitches Sunday, allowing four walks and two hits while striking out six. Magno finished the last 3⅓ scoreless innings on 59 pitches.

“It’s so loud I can’t hear myself think, so I can just go,” Magno said. “It freed me up to do that.”

Erstad said the “superhuman” efforts of the two lefties thwarted the Husker plan to start the lineup it normally does against righties. As the coach saw it based on usage, OSU couldn’t stick with its southpaws very long. Regular Friday righty starter Garrett Burhenn would have been the choice, Beals said, but he wasn’t going to be cleared from concussion protocol until Monday.

“I didn’t, I guess, think that they would throw that many pitches,” Erstad said. “Let’s just say a lot of the things didn’t go the way we wanted them to go.”

Schanaman kept the Huskers close by navigating a career-high four-plus innings. The right-hander handcuffed the Buckeyes until the eighth, when they managed a walk and single. A Conner Pohl sacrifice fly off closer Colby Gomes pushed the Ohio State lead to 3-1.

“I just emptied the tank and gave my team a shot,” Shanaman said.

Lots of Husker baseball games give Big Ten tournament a major attendance boost

A lot of Nebraska translated into an attendance boost at the Big Ten tournament this week.

It wasn’t a perfect scenario for Husker fans to come to TD Ameritrade Park — their team played at 9 p.m. Wednesday and 9 a.m. Friday after a Thursday postponement. But it ended with ideal weather at an ideal time on the Sunday of a holiday weekend.

The final crowd for the Huskers and Ohio State was 17,503 — second-best in college baseball this spring.

The five-day total added up to 47,790 in 15 games. That is up from last year’s 12,404, when the Huskers didn’t qualify for the event in Omaha, Iowa was a quick out and there were two fewer games.

But both numbers still dwarfed recent years when the tournament was not at the home of the College World Series. The 2017 edition at Indiana’s home field in Bloomington drew 6,712, and the 2015 version at Target Field in Minneapolis attracted 7,384.

The Big Ten expanded to an eight-team tourney format in 2014, and that inaugural event in Omaha remains the best attended at 62,044 in 13 games. The final between Nebraska and Indiana brought 19,965, the largest single-game conference tournament crowd in NCAA history.

Omaha will continue to host the league tournament through at least 2022.

NCAA regional hosts was largely an expected group with one exception, West Virginia

Browse through the list of the 16 regional hosts announced Sunday night and you’ll find one obvious outlier.

It’s a group largely made up of traditional powers, upstart dynasties and brand-name giants. Five of the 2019 hosts reached last season’s College World Series and six others have played in Omaha at least once in the past six years.

But there’s an exception: West Virginia.

The Mountaineers (37-20) will host NCAA tournament games for the first time since 1955. The program that is two seasons removed from snapping a 21-year regional drought is now a top 16 caliber team.

Even after losing in the Big 12 tournament final Sunday, coach Randy Mazey had to pause during his postgame press conference to marvel at the program’s progress.

“No one in the world would have ever saw this coming seven years ago,” said Mazey, who was hired before the 2013 season. “There’s so many people that have a hand in this. You can’t be prouder of where the Mountaineers are.”

They find out which teams will join them in Morgantown when the full 64-team bracket is announced at 11 a.m. Monday on ESPNU. The 16 hosts will be seeded Nos. 1 through 16 as well.

Several of those top 16 teams are in familiar positions.

Eight squads that hosted last year will again play postseason baseball at their own ballparks: Georgia (44-15), East Carolina (43-15), Arkansas (41-17), Texas Tech (39-17), Oregon State (36-18-1), Stanford (41-11), North Carolina (42-17) and Ole Miss (37-25).

After a one-year hiatus, LSU (37-24) and Louisville (43-15) are hosting.

Mississippi State (46-13) gets a regional in Starkville for the first time since 2016. Oklahoma State’s last home regional came in 2015 — the Cowboys (36-18) won the Big 12 tournament Sunday. Georgia Tech (41-17) snapped an eight-year regional hosting drought.

There appear to be contenders vying for the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed.

Pac-12 champion UCLA (47-8) has been ranked No. 1 in the Top 25 for 10 consecutive weeks. The Bruins are on a 10-game winning streak.

But Vanderbilt clinched its first SEC tournament title since 2007 — the Commodores (49-10) rallied from a 9-1 deficit and won with a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth Sunday.

The celebration won’t last long, though. It rarely does. Even those who left their respective league tournaments with a loss this past weekend can’t afford to spend time stewing.

After Arkansas got bounced from the SEC tournament Friday — in what was the Razorbacks’ ninth straight game against a ranked opponent — coach Dave Van Horn delivered a line that 63 of his colleagues will probably repeat after the bracket is unveiled Monday.

“Time to get ready for that regional,” Van Horn said.