Four games against Nebraska, four losses. Four losses in heart-breaking fashion.
The venue may have changed, Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park instead of Hawks Field, the home of the Huskers, but playing Nebraska in their home state, thousands of Big Red faithful behind them, Ohio State found a familiar ending to the fourth game between the two, a four-run ninth propelling a walk-off Nebraska win. Wednesday's 7-6 loss to the Huskers drops Ohio State to 30-27 on the season and sets a 10 a.m. ET date Thursday morning against three-seeded Illinois.
"It's a very disappointing loss but I'm very proud of how our guys played," Ohio State head coach Greg Beals said. "We played extremely well for a very long time in today's game."
But as they did in their April 11-13 series in Lincoln, Ohio State was unable to turn Beals' phrase of a very long time to a complete game.
"The ninth inning, again, got away from us against Nebraska," Beals said. "We've played Nebraska for now 36 innings and we've beaten them for 32 of those 36 innings and are now 0-4."
With Ohio State sending left-hander Tanner Tully, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year on the mound, a potential pitcher's duel appeared to be in the cards as Nebraska countered with first-team all-Big Ten right-hander Chance Sinclair.
Any prospects of a low-scoring affair fell by the wayside in a six-run fourth for Ohio State.
Sophomore second baseman Troy Kuhn led off the inning with a single to left, advancing to second on a fielding error by Husker Michael Pritchard. Junior first baseman Josh Dezse reached first on a hit by pitch, moving to second on a Troy Montgomery single to center. An opposite-field double off the bat of junior catcher Aaron Gretz landed just fair, plating two, and a third Buckeye run cross on a squeeze off the bat of shortstop Craig Nennig, Montgomery slide under the tag of.
After a wild pitched on a ball four to left fielder Tim Wetzel scored Gretz, Nebraska's Darin Erstad pulled Sinclair.
"One out a guy on second, two strikes on Dezse, didn't get a fastball in and you hit him with the next pitch," Erstad said of when the tide tuned in the fourth. "It's first and second; then bam, bam, bam, they put some hits together and that's a credit to them. Credit to Ohio State.
"Once they get the ball going, they get his, they get the merry-go running and run around the bases and I just do not like watching that. They're very aggressive and we're lucky we limited them to six."
His double keying the big inning, Gretz spoke of the approach Ohio State had against Sinclair, who entered with a 1.88 ERA in 91 innings.
"We knew he kept the ball down, was going to work his two-seamer down a lot, mostly down and out on guys," the junior backstop said. "We had a plan going into the game we were going to let the ball get in deep and hit it the other way. We did a really good job of that in the inning we scored six runs."
Ohio State added two more runs in the inning with consecutive RBI-singles from sophomore Nick Sergakis and freshman Ronnie Dawson.
Racking up six hits in the six-run fourth, Ohio State's offense was held in check through the rest of the game. After Sinclair was lifted, four Huskers combined to allowed one run off four hits in 5.2 innings of relief work.
With the Nebraska bullpen silencing the Buckeye bats, the Huskers mounted a pair of rallies.
A three-run fifth inning halved the deficit. But it was where the deficit could have been completely erased. Entering the contest with just six walks in 86.1 innings pitched, Tully momentarily lost his command. With three runs off four hits, Tully moved a pair of Huskers into scoring position with a wild pitch. A walk to Nebraska catcher Tanner Lubach loaded the bases. But the freshman from Elkhart, Ind. rebounded to strike out Nebraska right fielder Austin Darby on an outside offspeed pitch at the knees, putting a stop to the Husker attack.
Tully followed the fifth inning with a pair of 1-2-3 innings to make a seventh-inning start for the eighth time in his last nine contests.
"His command," Gretz said of what allowed his battery mate to limit Nebraska to three runs. "Was throwing everything for strikes, kept them pretty off-balance. Tough to hit a guy that can throw three pitches for a strike at any moment."
With Tully at 126 pitches after seven innings, Ohio State went to fellow freshman Travis Lakins in relief. A 1-2-3 inning from Lakins left Ohio State with three more outs to gain to open their win in Omaha with a win.
But as they found out in Lincoln, putting away the Huskers is easier said than done.
Ohio State junior right-hander Trace Dempsey sought his ninth save of the season, called on from Beals to close the door. But sent him to a fourth loss in five decisions.
Dempsey issued two walks around a hit by pitch to put the first three Huskers on base. A strikeout of pinch-hitting Christian Cox left Nebraska down to their final two outs seeking three runs to extend the game. Dempsey was unable to build off of the three strikes thrown to Cox, issuing a four-pitch walk to Pritchard to bring in a run. The heavily-leaning Nebraska crowd of TD Ameritrade Park in a frenzy, Beals went to the bullpen again, placing senior right-hander Tyler Giannonatti on the mound.
Pat Kelly stroked a two-run single back up the middle off Giannonatti to tie the game, putting Nebraska 90 feet from victory. After issuing an intentional walk to put the double play, as well as force at home in tack, Lubach lifted a flyball to centerfield to Montgomery. The throw home from the freshman was not in time to throw out Pritchard sending Nebraska to the 7-6 victory, providing Ohio State with another gut-punching loss.
"It's a tough go, Beals said. "Coach Erstad and his boys are tough competitors, they play to the finish line and give them credit for that."
Watching Nebraska celebrate a walk-off victory with his team in the field for a third consecutive time, Beals spoke to the Huskers ability to not panic, relying on prior experience in rallying for wins.
"We have to do a better job of is making them do it all themselves," the fourth-year head coach said. "We helped them out a little bit with a lack of strikes and the free bases they got there in the 9th inning. It's hard to put up zeros when you're giving up free bases, we have to do a better job of managing the baseball game and reducing the free bases to beat a good team."
Ohio State will face another good team on Thursday in Illinois. The Illini are in the loser's bracket after a 2-1 loss to Michigan State. At 31-20 on the year, the third-seed Illini are on the tournament bubble, seeking wins to boost their NCAA resume.
But for the Buckeyes a loss definitely ends their season and Gretz is aware of tomorrow being the last game the 2014 Buckeyes play.
"At this point we have nothing to lose, we're playing for our lives, try to live to see another day."