MINNEAPOLIS — Nebraska's Christian DeLeon hadn't pitched in two weeks, and it showed early, when the junior quickly realized he didn't have his best stuff.
But once DeLeon settled in Saturday afternoon at the Big Ten tournament, the right-hander was as effective as he's been, shutting out the Ohio State offense for eight innings and leading Nebraska to a season-extending 5-0 win at Target Field.
The Huskers (28-29) will now face No. 1 seed Indiana (42-13) at 7:05 p.m. Saturday. They need a win to extend the tournament one more day and earn a shot at the title Sunday. The Hoosiers would lock up a championship with one win.
It will be up to Nebraska's bullpen to hold off Indiana, the Big Ten's best offense. Senior closer Dylan Vogt is slated to start the game.
But DeLeon's strong outing in an elimination game against the No. 2 seed Buckeyes (35-23) Saturday was just about the best case scenario for No. 3 seed NU, keeping its relievers fresh.
DeLeon, sidelined for a week with elbow soreness, gave up five hits on an afternoon when he never quite had a great feel for his slider and changeup. But he did just enough to escape a few early jams to allow his offense to eventually take control.
“I just tried to stay away from their bats, tried to stay low,” DeLeon said. “They've got some good hitters. They're a good ball team.”
The Buckeyes had won the last three games against Nebraska, including a 3-2 walk-off Thursday that dropped the Huskers' into the tournament loser's bracket.
But NU eliminated No. 4 seed Minnesota 7-4 Friday — starting senior Ryan Hander instead of DeLeon, who'd been Nebraska's No. 1 starting pitcher before the injury.
NU coach Darin Erstad characterized that decision as a gamble, but the risky move paid off Saturday.
DeLeon did have a shaky start, walking the first batter he faced before throwing away a pickoff attempt. But he retired the next three Ohio State hitters to escape the threat.
“After that first inning, I kind of knew what I needed to do throughout the game,” DeLeon said.
He attacked inside on hitters with his fastball early, then worked the outside of the strike zone later on
DeLeon gave up a few hard-hit fly balls, but seemed to gain confidence as the game progressed. He threw 42 pitches in the first three innings, and 58 in the five frames after that.
DeLeon was especially tough when the pressure was at its highest. He didn't give up a hit in the eight at-bats OSU had with a runner in scoring position.
That was deflating for a Buckeye offense that had struggled lately, scoring three runs or fewer in its last 11 games.
“We could have had a two-run lead going into the fourth inning, if we just move the ball to the middle of the field and we hit lazy fly balls,” OSU coach Greg Beals said
DeLeon made it tough, though. And it was his resiliency early, keeping Ohio State off the scoreboard, that seemed to spark the NU dugout a big and the Huskers capitalized on the momentum in the fourth.
Senior Rich Sanguinetti led the inning off with a double, then scored to make it 1-0 on junior Michael Pritchard's single back through the middle. After senior Kash Kalkowski reached, sophomore Blake Headley ripped a 2-2 pitch into right-center field for a two-run, two-out double.
Nebraska added two more runs on Chad Christensen's one-out single in the eighth inning, extending the lead to 5-0.
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