There was a period of about ten minutes in the top of the ninth where the entire 2022 baseball season was being encapsulated in one-half inning of play. Sitting on the edge of a satisfying, dominating victory, Cornhusker players, coaches, and fans nearly witnessed a meltdown that would serve as a gut-punch that would last a long time.
With a 10-4 Nebraska lead and seeing only a minor threat from Michigan State, the bottom fell out and the boys in red limped to the finish line, barely surviving with a one-run victory.
There was a good crowd at the start of this must-win contest between two teams fighting for a chance to play next week in the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha. There was definitely a big game feel and a lot of anticipation. Many Nebraska fans kept their eyes on their smart phones to see what was happening at Purdue because so much was riding on what was going to take place in both ballparks.
It was apparent as the game started that both teams were focused on what they could control. Coach Will Bolt surprised the Cornhusker faithful, starting Mason Ornelas on the mound. The Texas A&M transfer has been used as long relief most of the season, with a couple of midweek starts, yet received the call in the biggest game of the season. All things considered, he was the best option, as most of the other pitchers with starting experience had already pitched in the last four days.
With the first five batters in the Spartan lineup hitting from the left side, this would be a real test for the right-handed Texan. Ornelas walked Mitch Jebb to start the game and then surrendered a double to Trent Farquhar. With runners on second and third, the next two batters hit high choppers to the first base side, scoring both runners. When the dust cleared, Michigan State had a two-run lead after their first at-bat.
Michigan State starter, Ryan Szczepaniak, struggled with control with his warmup pitches, and that continued once Nebraska batters dug in to the box. Cam Chick and Garrett Anglim both drew walks. Griffin Everitt then moved them to second and third, bringing up the cleanup batter, Max Anderson. Mighty Max blasted a 2-1 fastball over the terrace seats in right-center, putting the Cornhuskers up 3-2.
Colby Gomes ripped a single up the middle to keep things going. Next up was Leighton Banjoff, who was drilled in his ear-hole, by a pitch that got away from the pitcher. Both were stranded as Brice Matthews put a charge in a deep fly ball that was caught against the wall in center and DH Luke Jessen struck out to end the inning.
Ornelas put the Spartans down in order at the top of the second, and then things got real dicey between the umpires and the Nebraska bench.
Number nine batter Efry Cervantes led off the inning, and took a two strike pitch right in the noggin, the second Nebraska batter hit in the head in two innings. None of the umpires on the field seemed at all inclined to issue any kind of warning to the Michigan State pitcher, and were more concerned about what was said from the Cornhusker bench. The thin-skinned third base umpire and apparent crew check was very animated, as he did a lot of finger-pointing and yelling at the bench. However, nothing at all was said to the pitcher who had hit a second batter in the head.
One could see and hear that this game meant a lot, especially in the top of the third when Garrett Anglim made perhaps the defensive play of the season. With two runners on base and one out, Casey Meyers hit a deep fly to right. Anglim went back, back, back and leapt up at the wall, snagging the sure three-run homer for an amazing, perhaps game-saving catch. Mitch Jebb, tagging up at second, appeared to many in the stadium to have taken off early to third. Once the ball was back in the infield, Brice Matthews walked to second and stepped on the base. The second base umpire vehemently signalled the runner had tagged up.
Moments later, Mr. Thin-Skin Elephant Ear Third Base Umpire charged once again to the Nebraska dugout. Mr. Don’t Question Me Second Base Umpire also came to third base line, as Coach Bolt wanted to talk about the tag. Bolt made his argument in a firm, but composed manner, but Mr. Don’t Question Me apparently took offense and became quite animated. Then, Mr. Thin-Skin thought he needed to get involved and suddenly you had two umpires yelling at a head coach who was standing firm. In a big game like this, Bolt was going to hold the umpires accountable.
Michigan State added a run in the top of the fourth as first baseman Brock Vradenburg homered off Ornelas to tie the game 3-3. Nebraska was up for the challenge as the Big Red stormed back with three more runs in the bottom half.
Luke Jessen lined a single up the middle. Cervantes then put down a beautiful bunt to the first base side to move Jessen to second. Cam Chick followed with a walk. After Anglim popped out to the shortstop, Griffin Everitt hit his eighth home run of the season to put Nebraska up again, 6-3. Anderson then followed with a double down the right field line, but was left there as Colby Gomes was way out in front of a pitch and dribbled one to first for an easy out.
Nebraska scored two more in the fifth as Cornhusker batters had three singles in a row by Matthews, Jessen, and Cervantes, who drove in Matthews. Cam Chick drove home Jessen with a sacrifice fly to put the Big Red up 8-3
Braxton Bragg came in for Ornelas in the top of the fifth and came through unscathed through the seventh inning. Nebraska added a run with a first pitch homer by Leighton Banjoff.
Nebraska was cruising until the top of the eighth.
Bragg had stacked up a number of pitches and seemed to be losing a little of his zip, and missing on the edges. After giving up a double to Jack Frank, he threw the next pitch to the backstop, allowing Frank to advance to third. Vradenburg hit a deep sacrifice fly to left. With Bragg out of gas, Corbin Hawkins came in and struck out Dillon Kark.
Nebraska added a run in the bottom of the eighth with Max Anderson’s second home run of the game.
With a 10-4 lead, what could go wrong? Well, almost everything!
Hawkins was set to face the bottom of the Michigan State lineup. Peter Ahn singled up the middle and then Brice Matthews booted a sharp grounder by Bryan Broecker that had double play written all of it. Instead, Sparty had runners on first and second with no outs. Then, light hitting number nine, Zach Iverson stroked a single to the right side, scoring Ahn and moving Broecker to second.
With the tough, left-handed hitting top of the lineup coming to the plate, Coach Bolt went to the bullpen for his only lefty left out there, freshman Chandler Benson. The next five hitters, all of them left-handed hitters, turned the day into a nightmare for the rookie from Texas. Jebb singled to load the bases. Farquhar blasted a grand slam to right. 10-8 Nebraska. No outs.
Third spot hitter Casey Mayes then dropped a bunt that the pitcher couldn’t get to throw him out at first. The cleanup hitter stroked a single. Runners on first and second. That brought the fifth lefty in a row up to the plate in the form of the go-ahead run. Somehow, young Benson summoned some moxie and struck him out for the first out of the inning.
Coach Bolt didn’t hesitate to pull Benson at that point and brought in C.J. Hood, another freshman. The righty from Norris got Kark to pop up to Gomes. Two outs. That brought up yet another left hander, Peter Ahn who had led off the inning with a single. Hood threw a wild pitch, allowing runners to advance to second and third.
Anxiety was layered like frosting all over the park.
C.J. was taking deep breaths from his toes. Ahn had two hits in a row and a load of confidence. After the wild pitch, Hood threw a nasty breaking pitch to even the count and after a foul ball, threw another for strike three.
Game over. Nebraska wins 10-9!
The team predicted to win the Big Ten Conference finished the season 23-30, and on the outside looking in at the tournament. Don’t let others control your fate; it’s a fundamental rule in athletics. Take charge and put yourself in a position to determine your own destiny. Nebraska did not do that this season.
This team was far too inconsistent, particularly at the plate, to earn a spot in the post-season. Are they better than teams that will be in Omaha next week? Yes, but they also let games get away from them against some of them, specifically two to Iowa at home a few weeks back.
Purdue should be embarrassed for backing into a trip to Omaha, and hopefully what goes around comes around.
Heck, last week Texas A&M “mutually” cancelled a game vs. Incarnate Word so as not to damage their RPI and thus not harm their post-season chances. That’s cowardice and is not what true sportsmen would do. There is nothing admirable in Purdue’s appearance in the tournament, but Nebraska should not had left it up to them.
In the next couple of weeks, Cornhusker players will scatter to their summer teams and the coaching staff will take time to reflect on this season and put plans in place to make sure it does not happen again.
Conversations will be held with Covid seniors about coming back, as well as some other players who have current spots on the roster. Twenty new players are scheduled to join the team in the fall, including nine JUCO players expecting to be on the field.
There will most certainly be some new faces for us to cheer on next year!