OKLAHOMA CITY — A pair of shouted expletives echoed through a concrete hallway outside the Nebraska locker room. Before that was the roar of an orange-clad crowd in a moment that may define the postseason path for two teams.
The Huskers always won these games – they were 30-0 when leading after the eighth inning this season. And Colby Gomes always came through – the flame-throwing freshman closer had allowed one earned run in his past 16 appearances and hadn’t given up a home run.
So everything appeared to set up perfectly for Nebraska as it took a three-run lead into the ninth inning of its winners bracket game against Oklahoma State. But with two Cowboys on and two outs, slugger Trevor Boone cracked a first-pitch hanging fastball into the night for the decisive blow as OSU pulled out a 6-5 win Saturday.
“(Gomes) throws a good fastball,” a glossy-eyed Boone said afterward. “I was just trying to put a good swing on it and let the baseball gods do the rest.”
The outcome spoiled a masterful outing from senior right-hander Matt Waldron in a game the Huskers led from the start after Aaron Palensky’s three-run, first-inning homer. NU was up 5-0 after three and appeared primed to draw within a win of its first super-regional berth in 14 years.
Instead, third-seeded Nebraska (32-23) trudged off the Bricktown Balllpark field knowing it had the No. 9 national seed where it wanted it and didn’t finish. NU fell to an elimination game against second-seeded UConn at noon Sunday. The winner advances to face OSU at 5 p.m., with an if-necessary game to follow Monday.
“It’s do or die for us,” NU senior shortstop Angelo Altavilla said. “That’s all you really need to tell the guys. I do not want it to be my last game (Sunday). Not at all.”
Saturday’s outcome didn’t appear likely as the Huskers forced lefty Parker Scott to throw 54 pitches in two innings and the Cowboys to go to their bullpen. But righty Jake Lyons provided six strong innings of relief beginning in the third and retired 16 of the last 17 he faced with a lively fastball and curve.
OSU – which ranks sixth nationally in home runs per game – got on the board when Carson McCusker cracked a solo shot in the sixth. The Cowboys added another on a two-out RBI double by Bryce Carter in the eighth off a tiring Waldron.
Gomes entered in the ninth and surrendered a one-out walk and single before inducing a popup. Then Andrew Navigato slapped an RBI single to put runners at the corners. Boone followed with his team-leading 20th homer and demonstratively tossed his bat aside while Nebraska’s closer watched with his hands on his knees.
“It lined up how we’ve always won our games,” coach Darin Erstad said. “The baseball gods were not on our side tonight.”
The sizeable OSU portion of the 4,814 in attendance wanted to erupt all night, trying to make the most of hits and quiet Husker innings. But the bottom of the first inning gave Nebraska and Waldron the cushion it wouldn’t relinquish until the end.
Palensky followed singles by Jaxon Hallmark and Cam Chick with a blast over the pavilion in left to give NU a 3-0 lead after three batters.
“It’s definitely something I’m going to remember,” the sophomore said. “I just wish that we were on the other side of the game.”
The Huskers got into the OSU bullpen in the third, working a Hallmark walk and Altavilla single. Gomes chased both home by guiding a two-out roller into center field to push the lead to 5-0.
Two NU mistakes in the field opened the door for potential disaster, but both times Waldron and his defense responded. An error on a sure double-play grounder in the first inning loaded the bases with one out, but Waldron coaxed a strikeout and flyout.
In the fifth, a ball dropped between a falling Mojo Hagge in left field and Spencer Schwellenbach at shortstop with one away. Altavilla followed with the diving catch into the stands that video review upheld, and Acker laid out in center field on a hard-hit ball to strand a Cowboy at third base.
Waldron was sharp throughout his 124-pitch performance, allowing nine hits but walking none with a career-high 11 strikeouts buoyed by an effective change-up. Oklahoma State strung together a pair of two-out singles in the eighth, then Carter dropped an RBI double into right-center to cut the lead to 5-2.
Erstad said Waldron was up in the zone with his offspeed offerings late, which prompted the change. Reliever Shay Schanaman, a freshman from Grand Island, squashed the threat with a strikeout on four pitches.
“I really didn’t even want to look at how many pitches (Waldron) was throwing,” Erstad said. “You just kind of look at how he looks out there.”
Nebraska has yet to announce its starter for Sunday, though senior righty Reece Eddins and freshmen lefty Kyle Perry appear to be the top candidates. That was far from the team’s mind at midnight as it processed the one that got away.
“Crazy set of circumstances, but this is what we have,” Erstad said. “Anything I say to the boys right now is not going to sink in. So let them try and get some sleep and we’ll chat in the morning.”
Oklahoma City Regional
Sunday: UConn (37-24) vs. Nebraska (32-23), noon.
Championship: Oklahoma State (38-18) vs. TBD, 5 p.m.
Second championship, if needed, 6 p.m. Monday
Husker baseball notes: Video replay upholds Altavilla’s great catch
OKLAHOMA CITY -– Angelo Altavilla dove into the stands for a foul ball. It looked like the Nebraska third baseman made a great catch two rows deep off left field.
But then, a video review on the fifth-inning play. Coach Darin Erstad still didn’t know what officials were looking at after Oklahoma State had rallied for a 6-5 NCAA regional win Saturday night.
OSU coach Josh Holliday said he challenged whether Altavilla caught the ball – not whether he left the field of play – before umpires chose to look at the play on their own.
Per NCAA rules, the runner at second base moved to third because the play took a defender into the stands.
Third time’s a charm for Waldron vs. OSU
Saturday was among the best outings of Matt Waldron’s career. It was certainly his best in three tries against the Cowboys.
The Omaha Westside grad started the 2016 regional that OSU won 6-0, lasting 3 2/3 innings. He fired three scoreless relief innings when the teams faced off in the Frisco Classic in 2017. Okie State won that game 1-0.
Waldron left with an eighth-inning lead Saturday after striking out a career-high 11.
New number for Hallmark
Jaxon Hallmark singled in his first two at-bats Saturday night wearing a No. 50 jersey. This wasn’t by design.
The sophomore utilityman usually wears No. 2. But he forgot his cream-colored uniform when departing from the Big Ten tournament last weekend.
“His jersey was in Omaha in the hotel, probably still,” Erstad said. “So he just had to use a different number.”
NCAA Regionals: Nebraska vs. UCONN
When: 12 p.m. Sunday
Where: Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM in Nebraska City