It was inevitable, it was going to play out how it did, it was a baseball game between Ohio State-Nebraska.
As certain as April 15 is Tax Day, water is wet and ice is cold, the rubber match between the Buckeyes and Cornhuskers was a white-knuckle affair decided in a last at-bat. In support of three shutout innings from closer Trace Dempsey, an Aaron Gretz RBI-single in the 10th inning scored Ohio State's winning run before the Buckeyes picked up a 5-2 victory. With the win Ohio State improves to 26-10 on the season, 9-3 in the Big Ten, sending Nebraska, ranked No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches Poll, to a 6-6 mark in Big Ten play and 29-13 overall.
A year after Nebraska won all four meetings in their last at-bat, Ohio State closed the weekend series with two of their own.
"It's big to win a road series," Ohio State head coach Greg Beals said. "Last time we played here we lost every game in their last at-bat. That's a good club, it's big."
Against everything in recent history suggested, a quick start gave the appearance Ohio State might cruise to victory.
Sophomore center fielder Troy Montgomery hit a towering home run to right center field off Nebraska starter Derek Burkamper to give Ohio State a 1-0 lead after one at-bat in. Montgomery's leadoff homer run, his third homer of the year, was only Ohio State's second extra-base hit of the weekend as Nebraska pitchers limited the Buckeyes two 15 singles in the first 16 hits of the series.
But in doubling the lead the Buckeyes were back to manufacturing runs.
In the top of the third inning, sophomore left fielder Ronnie Dawson worked a walk in an eight-pitch at-bat, putting two Buckeyes on base after a one-out single from senior right fielder Pat Porter. Junior third baseman Nick Sergakis stretched the Ohio State lead, plating Porter by pulling a single down the third base line to make it a 2-0 contest. The Buckeyes had an opportunity to jump out to a commanding lead, loading the bases with two outs to chase Burkamper, but Husker freshman left-hander Jake Meyers retired junior shortstop Craig Nennig to end the threat.
With the game still in reach, Nebraska halved the Buckeye lead in their third inning at-bat. Ohio State senior left-hander Ryan Riga, who had yet to surrender a run in Big Ten play when toeing the rubber on Sunday, was struck for a pair of singles around a 4-3 ground out. With runners at the corners and one out, a sacrifice fly off the bat of junior second baseman Jake Placzek scored freshman left fielder Luis Alvarado to make it a 2-1 game.
After a quiet fourth a golden opportunity lay in front of Darin Erstad's club.
Alvarado's second hit of the day opened the Nebraska fifth with a single through the left side. Attempting to throw out Alvarado on a fielder's choice off the bat of sophomore shortstop Wes Edrington, Riga threw low of second base putting two aboard. The lineup turning over to sophomore center fielder Ryan Boldt, a projected first round draft pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, the Husker lineup starter sacrificed his at-bat, putting two in scoring position for the hosts. Where one hit could turn a one-run lead to a one-run deficit, Riga buckled down, striking out Placzek and senior third baseman Chase Headley to preserve the 2-1 lead.
Designated hitter Tre' Gantt picked up his fourth hit of the series, reaching base safely for the sixth time, with an one-out single in the top of the sixth. But the freshman was picked off by Nebraska junior right-hander Jeff Chestnut in-between a pair of grounders preventing the Buckeyes from capitalizing on the momentum Riga gave. Unable to seizing greater advantage of opportunities, Ohio State had seven hits through six innings, keeping the Huskers around proved costly.
A leadoff single in the bottom of the sixth by Nebraska senior catcher Tanner Lubach was erased when his Ohio state counter, Buckeye catcher Gretz threw him out on the bases. A failed hit-and-run worked to Nebraska's favor when sophomore DH Ben Miller lined a solo home run over the right field wall, knotting the game 2-2. A two-out single turned into Nebraska having a runner in scoring position with a throwing error by Nennig putting freshman Scott Schreiber at second base. Riga would solve Alvarado, retiring him for the first time in the game, ringing up his fourth strike to limit the damage.
Heading into the stretch, Ohio State was unable to push a go-ahead run across, letting an one-out double to the left field alley by Montgomery go to the wayside. But the Buckeyes flashed the leather in the bottom of the inning when sophomore second baseman L Grant Davis made a diving grab on a two-out liner to rob Headley and strand a runner on base.
After tossing 106 pitches, 67 for strike in seven innings of work, Riga was relieved in the eighth inning by Dempsey. The final line for the senior southpaw read two Husker runs off six hits, striking out four, walking a pair.
"We had to go to Dempsey in the eighth because we felt if we didn't get a zero here there wouldn't be a ninth inning for him to go to," Beals said.
In hellacious junior campaign, Dempsey allowed the game-winning hit in Nebraska's first walk-off victory against Ohio State, and took the loss in third such affair between the two in the Big Ten Tournament. Called upon to keep the game deadlocked, it was eventful but Dempsey exercised past demons. A two-out double by senior right fielder Austin Darby put Nebraska's go-ahead run in scoring position. A fielding error by first baseman Connor Sabanosh allowed Schreiber to put Huskers at the corners. Pinch-hitting for Alvarado, Christian Cox struck out swinging.
Anchoring the Ohio State order, Davis opened the inning with a single to left field. The top of the lineup coming to the plate, Howell weathered the storm, sending Montgomery down on strikes before Sabanosh hit into an inning-ending 4-6-3 double play.
Looking to rekindle the magic of 2014 with a walk-off win, pinch-hitting for Edrington, sophomore Jake Schleppenbach blooped a single into shallow center, falling in an area where no Buckeye could get to the ball. The leadoff runner on, Dempsey rebounded to strike out Boldt, get Placzek to fly out to deep center and strikeout Headley, sending the game into extra innings for a second straight day.
After Porter flew out to opening the extra frames, Dawson and Sergakis stroked back-to-back single off Howell. On a 1-0 pitch, an opposite-field single to left by Gretz plated Dawson giving Ohio State the 3-2 lead. Freshman right-hander Garrett King relieved Howell and picked up one out before walking Nennig to lead the bases with two down. Now at shortstop, Placzek fielded a ball off Davis' bat but threw wide of first, allowing Sergakis and Gretz to score, making it 5-2.
Holding a three-run lead, Dempsey surrendered a leadoff hitter to Headley before back-to-back choppers to Nennig at short turned a 6-4-3 double play and game-ending 6-3 putout to secure the Ohio State victory.
Entering the weekend on the heels of saying he wanted a weekend victory against Nebraska more than any team on the schedule, Sergakis went 3-for-5 to lead Ohio State's 13-hit attack. Dawson, Gantt and Montgomery each tallied two hits. Dempsey improved to 8-1 on the year, pitching three innings of shutout baseball, striking out three, scattering three hits. Howell received the loss for Nebraska, allowing three hits, one run, off five hits in 2.1 innings. Alvarado was the lone Husker to record a multi-hit game.
Searching for the program's first Big Ten championship since 2009, the Buckeyes return to Columbus 1.5 games behind conference-leading Illinois. Concluding a week with three wins over ranked teams, Ohio State is set to welcome Morehead State to Nick Swisher Field at Bill Davis Stadium for games on Tuesday and Wednesday.