Nebraska appeared to be cruising to an easy win in its home opener against Kansas State Tuesday — well, until the eighth inning. Then things got tense.
Kansas State scored three times, cutting the NU lead in half. It was 9-6 and the bases were loaded with two out. Coach Darin Erstad approached the mound, presumably to remove sophomore Brandon Pierce, who’d yet to record an out but had already thrown a wild pitch, walked a guy and given up two singles.
Erstad wasn’t replacing the right-hander, though. Just had a message for him. And he summoned the entire infield to the mound to hear it.
“I just told him to breathe,” Erstad said. “He just gets going so fast and wants to rush. Just told him to slow down. I was nice and gentle with him.”
It wasn’t the first mid-inning meeting Erstad’s had with Pierce this season.
Pierce entered in the ninth against Texas A&M Corpus Christi with a 7-1 lead, but he surrendered a single and walked the next batter. Cue Erstad.
A similar message that time? “Umm, that one was a little different,” Erstad said.
Pierce responded. He induced a double play and ended the game with a strike out.
It’s clear the NU staff has confidence in the powerful 6-foot-2 righty from Gunter, Texas. Pierce’s seven appearances are most on the team so far, and he often takes over in pressure-filled spots — just ahead of new closer Travis Huber.
Control’s still Pierce’s biggest issue. He’s walked five in seven innings. Last year, he walked 18 guys and hit 11 batters over 31 1/3 innings.
The count went full on Pierce when facing Kansas State’s Mike Kindel in the eighth inning Tuesday before the senior lined out right to shortstop Chad Christensen to end the threat.
“It’s hard to hit a baseball,” Erstad said. “So just throw it over the plate and see what happens.”
A few other NU baseball notes are below. Here at Haymarket Park, on a chilly and cloudy Wednesday afternoon, the Huskers are set to host UNK in about 30 minutes.
>> Sophomore Jon Keller’s last two outings (he was purposely limited Tuesday): Five runs, six hits and two walks in 3 1/3 innings pitched. He hit the first K-State batter he faced Tuesday. It appeared that he was having some trouble keeping the ball down in the zone. Said pitching coach Ted Silva: “He’s just fighting his feel right now. That’s another reason why we threw him out there. It’s a typical side-session.”
>> In Wednesday’s paper, I wrote about senior Kale Kiser, whose two-run homer jump-started the NU offense. It might just break him out of a slump, too. Here’s Erstad’s take on Kiser: “He’s a senior. He wants to be the leader. He wants to be the man. It’s like, ‘Back down.’” … That’s not to say Kiser hasn’t still been helping the team, though. “He’s probably the only guy I’ve seen hit .160 with a .400 on-base percentage,” Erstad said. “It’s pretty much amazing what he can do.”
>> Huber, a JUCO guy, comes to Nebraska from the College of South Idaho. So, he was pretty pumped to make his Husker debut in front of 4,000-plus Tuesday. “It’s incredible. It’s really awesome to come out here and see all the support we’ve gotten. Really nice.”
>> Nebraska’s weekend opponent — California — improved to 9-2 by scoring the go-ahead run in the seventh and adding one more in the eighth to beat Creighton 7-5 Tuesday. The Bears have won five straight.
>> A couple Big Ten games to watch Wednesday: Penn State lost a road game 7-3 to Mississippi State Tuesday, but will get one more shot against the Bulldogs at 6:30 p.m. … Michigan State (swept by Texas A&M last weekend) plays at Baylor on Wednesday as well.