MINNEAPOLIS — Ohio State was celebrating in the infield and Nebraska's position players were frozen in their defensive spots, stunned that yet another thriller had ended in heartbreak.
After tying the game at 2 against the Big Ten's best closer in the top of the ninth, the Huskers lost it 3-2 in the inning's bottom half when veteran reliever Dylan Vogt walked in the winning run Thursday afternoon at Target Field.
For the fifth time this year, NU lost in an opponent's last at-bat — but this one was by far the most painful, dropping the Huskers into the losers bracket of the Big Ten tournament. They'll play at 3:35 p.m. Friday against the winner of the 12:05 p.m. game between Illinois and Minnesota.
No. 3 seed Nebraska is now one defeat away from elimination, which would likely end its season. And that fact was tough to accept after the loss to No. 2 seed Ohio State (35-21), a squad that junior Michael Pritchard and his teammates thought they should have beaten.
“That was a hard one,” Pritchard said. “It's one of the hardest losses I've had here.”
The Huskers (26-29) had many chances to take control. Nebraska's leadoff man reached in five straight innings at one point, but only in the fifth did the Huskers drive him in. That was when Pritchard lined a first-pitch fastball into the left-field gap for a two-out triple, tying the game at 1.
NU tried sacrifice bunts, hit-and-runs and straight steals. Anything to create some threats, because it's not easy to string singles together against a pitching staff that ranks 27th nationally in hits allowed per nine innings (8.1).
But few things worked. The Huskers had just two hits in 14 tries with runners in scoring position.
Their best opportunity came in the fourth inning, when sophomore second baseman Pat Kelly led off with a double. But he was left stranded at third.
“That was a big one,” NU coach Darin Erstad said. “Against good pitching — and obviously they're built on pitching — you have to be able to execute in those situations.”
Senior Bryan Peters did come through in the ninth inning against closer Trace Dempsey, guiding a 2-2 pitch through the left side for a two-out single. That scored pinch runner Ty Kildow and tied the game at 2.
Dempsey had 17 saves and a 0.81 ERA coming in, but sophomore Austin Darby drew a one-out walk and Kildow, in for Darby, stole second.
But in the bottom of the ninth, Kildow appeared to lose a shallow fly ball in the sun, allowing it to drop for a leadoff hit. And after a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk, Vogt walked senior Joe Ciamacco to load the bases.
Vogt's next pitch hit second baseman Troy Kuhn, but the home-plate umpire ruled that the OSU freshman had leaned into the baseball. Didn't matter. Vogt's next three tosses were nowhere close, clinching the Buckeye win and sending Nebraska into the losers bracket.
“The passion my guys have, it's off the charts,” Erstad said. “I'm just so proud of them, the way they battled. This one hurts for them. It was just a great game. We were on the wrong end of it. But I love their effort.”
The Huskers fell to 7-17 in games decided by two runs or fewer this year. But Pritchard said they'll be ready to bounce back Friday.
“We've been battling all year. We're just going to keep battling,” he said. “Hopefully, we can string some wins together.”
Sophomore left-hander Aaron Bummer set the tone for NU on Thursday, giving up two runs on four hits in seven innings. He threw a career-high 109 pitches and attacked the strike zone effectively with his fastball and slider.
But the Buckeyes, trying their best to lay off any pitch low and away, took advantage of his occasional mistakes.
They had two first-pitch singles to take a 1-0 lead in the second, and they went back in front 2-1 on freshman Jacob Bosiokovic's double in the sixth.
“When (Bummer) elevates something, you've got to take advantage of it,” said freshman designated hitter Zach Ratcliff, who had three hits and an RBI.
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