LINCOLN — Nebraska's hitters knew what to expect against a left-hander they faced twice last year, yet they never could get comfortable Sunday afternoon as Ohio State's starter varied his location and speeds to keep them guessing.
A lineup that had been batting .358 and averaging 8.5 runs in Big Ten play before the weekend series rubber match suddenly lost its edge, rendered punchless for seven innings while the Buckeyes (23-11, 7-5 Big Ten) built a seven-run lead.
The Huskers were popping up, grounding weakly right at defenders, flying out harmlessly or swinging right through the three-pitch array from Brian King. They couldn't spark a rally until King was lifted, and that four-run spurt in the eighth and ninth innings wasn't enough to avoid a 7-4 defeat.
The Huskers' reactions afterward apparently mirrored their dialogue during the game. King was locked in, and there wasn't much they could do Sunday.
“(Opponents are) just going to mix it up on us, try to get us off balance. That's what he did,” outfielder Michael Pritchard said. “At the end of the day, there's nothing you can really say about it, but tip your cap to him. He beat us.”
It was King who earned a win after six innings of work in a Big Ten tournament elimination game against Nebraska last year. The Huskers tagged him for four runs in five innings in a start midway through last season.
But King was at his best Sunday, using his change-up and breaking ball early in the count, then spotting his mid-80s fastball on both sides of the plate. He threw 90 pitches in seven innings and may have lasted longer had his offense not extended its lead to 7-0 with a four-run eighth inning. NU (14-19, 8-4) never had more than one base runner against King, managing just three hits.
“He had us off,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said. “He was making them not take good swings.”
Erstad said he saw nothing wrong with his players' effort or focus — which is why, he said, they broke through against the Buckeye bullpen with one run in the eighth and brought the potential tying run to the plate in the ninth.
Down 7-1 with three outs left, the Huskers used four singles and a hit batter to make it 7-3. Senior Rich Sanguinetti walked to load the bases with two outs after Austin Darby's sacrifice fly, but sophomore Pat Kelly popped out to end another tough loss. Nebraska fell 6-5 in 11 innings Saturday.
“We're out here, giving everything we've got. Everybody's emotionally invested in this thing,” Pritchard said. “We come to the park ready to go. Nobody can question whether or not we're here ready to play.”
Ohio State appeared to play with just as much intensity and aggressiveness Sunday, though.
The Buckeyes, sharp from the start, turned three double plays and didn't commit an error. They took a 1-0 lead in the second inning on a wild throw by shortstop Wes Edrington, and kept building on that momentum.
They had six hits in their four-run seventh, three coming on the first pitch they saw from NU relievers. OSU batters brought a determination to the plate, and benefited, coach Greg Beals said.
“We (usually) seem to be patient and have grind-it-out at bats, but we had some big first-pitch hits,” he said. “We had marked this as a big series. We put ourselves right back in the thick of things.”
The Buckeyes are still one game behind the Huskers in the Big Ten race, but play their next six conference games at home. Michigan and Minnesota, 7-2 in league play, are tied for first.
The top seven teams are all above .500 in the conference. Only six earn bids to the Big Ten tournament.
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