The Nebraska Cornhuskers (9-5) met up with the California Golden Bears (10-3) for the second game of a four game series today at a sunbathed but windy Haymarket Park. The 5,298 fans in attendance today were not disappointed as the Huskers erupted for ten runs in the 6th, 7th, and 8th innings, paving the way for the biggest and most impressive win of the young Darin Erstad era to date.
Today's game evens the series at one game apiece and also defines this series as an offensive one. Through two games, Nebraska has scored 20 runs to Cal's 16. Both games featured wild stretches where pitchers seemed helpless against the onslaught served up by opposing batters. We will see if this trend holds in the last two games of the series, but it certainly doesn't look like either team has the pitchers to control the others' batting lineup.
Nebraska started RHP Jon Keller who came in with a 2-0 record and 4.6 ERA while Cal started Matt Flemer who came in with a 2-0 record and an impressive 1.23 ERA. Through the first two innings, it was feeling alot like yesterday, as Cal scored a run in the 1st inning and two in the 2nd while the Huskers left the bases loaded in the bottom of the 1st. Cal led heading into the 3rd with a 3-0 lead. Keller's rough start continued in the third as he surrendered three consecutive singles to Cal batters, loading the bases with just one out. In a crucial moment, however, Keller and his fielders got out of the jam and the inning without surrendering a run. In the bottom of the third, a Chad Christensen grounder was mishandled by Cal third baseman Mitch Delfino, allowing him to get on base with two outs (the official scorekeepers credited Christensen with a hit....I disagree). Richard Stock followed up Christensen's "base hit" with a two run shot over the left field wall, putting the Huskers on the board and back in the game, 3-2.
The game went into a bit of a lull after the third, with two and a half scoreless innings, excepting a Cal run in the top of the 5th via a Delfino single. Going into the bottom of the 6th, Cal led 4-2. Chad Christensen led off the inning with a powerful solo shot that nearly cleared the outer fencing of the park. Rich Stock followed with a single, and was promptly brought home by a Kash Kalkowski triple, tying the game at 4. At this point, I expected we'd see the replacement of Cal starter Flemer, who had pitched well but was clearly beginning to lose the battle against NU's hitters. For whatever reason, (I've heard that Cal has issues with pitching depth), Flemer stayed in and Austin Darby brought Kalkowski home with a deep fly out to center field, giving NU the lead for good, 5-4. After Cal went down in order in the top of the 7th, NU did a nice job of manufacturing an insurance run, with a Michael Pritchard single, back to back sacrifices and finally a Rich Stock single for an RBI and a 6-4 Husker lead.
In the top of the 8th, Mitch Delfino led off with a solo shot to left field, cutting the Husker lead to 1. It would prove to be a flash in the pan, rather than a sustained run, however, as Erstad replaced Keller with reliever Tyler King, who quickly retired the side. In the bottom of the 8th, Flemer's day would go from bad to disastrous. Darby started things off with a single, Josh Scheffert batted him home with an RBI double. Cal appeared to lose its composure a bit as Flemer hit NU's next batter, Cory Burleson, placing NU runners on first and second. A Bryan Peters grounder to short stop should've been a routine force at third, but the ball got past Delfino and went into the NU dugout, sending Scheffert home and advancing NU runners to second and third with no outs. Pritchard then drew a walk, loading the bases. Cal pulled Flemer in favor of Michael Lowden to face Rich Sanguinetti. Sanguinetti had struggled at bat all day, going 0 for 4 earlier in the game, but that all ended as he sent the ball into the teeth of a strong wind over the right field wall for (what I believe is) NU's first grand slam of the year. The Huskers went into the 9th nursing a 7 run lead. Ryan Hander was sent in to finish the game, and he did just that, keeping the Bears off the board in the 9th, while playing a part in a nicely executed 1-4-3 double play.
W: Jon Keller, NU (2-0)
L: Matt Flemer, Cal (2-1)
3: Home runs by NU today. It's good to see the NU hitters getting major wood on a top tier opponents' pitching staff
10: How many minutes it took me to find a suitable space on the berm. Nice showing by the Husker fans today.
7 and 1/3: Innings pitched by Jon Keller. After a rough start, a really nice job by Keller to stabilize the game and then largely shut down Cal after the third inning.
Husker batting: Husker hitters were savvy at the plate, not swinging at bad pitches, and sending good pitches into the outfield and out of the park. They also managed to engage Flemer in numerous drawn out battles, wearing him down by the 6th inning.
Crowd: Haymarket Park was nearly at capacity today and the Huskers rewarded them with a thrilling win over a ranked opponent. Let's hope to see more of this as the season goes along.
Strong defensive finish: Undoubtedly many Husker fans were worried about NU blowing another late lead, but that didn't happen, not even close. NU's late pitching and defense was solid, with Cal getting just one fluky solo homer after the 5th inning.
It's hard to complain too much after a big win like this, but Keller got absolutely shelled through three innings, giving up three runs and 8 hits. NU's fielders also collected two uncharacteristic errors in the same span. Nebraska recovered, however, and came up with a very impressive win.
Nebraska's hitters have looked phenomenal so far this weekend. Is this team becoming an offensive power?
Players of the Game:
Jon Keller, SP, NU: Rough start, but he recovered well and gave Darin Erstad some valuable innings while NU's bullpen rested.
Rich Sanguinetti: OF, NU: Grand Slams don't come around too often and his more or less iced a big NU win.
The Huskers improve to 9-5 on the year, having won 9 of their last 11 games. They play against Cal tomorrow afternoon at 1:05 at Haymarket Park.