STILLWATER, Okla. — The Huskers won a game Saturday in the NCAA baseball tournament, in dramatic fashion, and barely cracked a smile.
Now that's progress.
I'm beginning to believe Darin Erstad might be one of the finest young head coaches in the country, Nebraska's 8-6 victory against Binghamton (N.Y.) in the Stillwater Regional notwithstanding.
The second-seeded Huskers (41-20) can play much better than they did against the No. 4 Bearcats (25-27), who entered with an RPI of 152. NU will have to play much better to plow through the regional's losers' bracket, a necessity following Friday's loss to No. 3 seed Cal State Fullerton.
That the Huskers seem to genuinely believe they can pull it off — and tell you so in matter-of-fact tones — is a testament to the confidence Erstad has instilled in the program in a relatively short period.
Remember, he inherited an outfit in 2012 that had failed to qualify for three straight conference tournaments, thanks to league records of 8-19, 8-19 and 9-17.
Fast-forward to Saturday at Allie P. Reynolds Stadium. Nebraska captured its first NCAA Tournament game since May 30, 2008, a 13-10 triumph over Eastern Illinois. That was NU's last tournament appearance. Nevertheless, Erstad's crew wasn't celebrating Saturday as if it had pulled off some sort of breakthrough victory for the resurgent program.
It wasn't celebrating at all.
After all, Nebraska should beat Binghamton nine out of 10 times, and I'm being generous to the Bearcats.
What's more, senior reliever Zach Hirsch (5-2), who sparkled in three-plus innings, indicated Nebraska is far from satisfied with one NCAA triumph.
Maybe you believe him. Maybe you don't. But at this point, how could you argue that Erstad's relentlessly positive, can-do approach isn't precisely what the program needed in the wake of its unsightly descent from 2009 to 2011?
Erstad, of course, has plenty of work ahead with the three-time CWS-qualifying program — both in the long and short term.
By short term, I mean before Sunday's first pitch. Nebraska will beat neither Cal State Fullerton nor top-seeded Oklahoma State if it records 16 flyball outs, as was the case against Binghamton junior right-hander Greg Ostner, who made only his third college start.
Erstad told his team that it still hasn't put together a relentless offensive approach for a full game.
Plus, "Defensively, we haven't even come close in this regional to playing as well as we can," the coach said. "We've pitched well at times. We've still not put it all together.
"That's what it's going to take (Sunday). Are the odds stacked against us? Absolutely. But we have a level in us that, in my opinion, we haven't played at. I still firmly believe that."
That sounds like a coach challenging his team. The challenge is formidable — win three games in the next two days. And do it against a Cal State Fullerton squad that entered the regional with a nation-best 2.03 earned-run average and an Oklahoma State team that won the Big 12 regular-season title and was 23-8 at home entering Saturday.
No problem, right?
"Their guy wasn't throwing very hard, about 82 mph, so you're out in front a lot," All-Big Ten outfielder Michael Pritchard said of Ostner. "He's mixing (pitches) a lot. We were just getting under it."
The Binghamton center fielder had nine putouts alone.
"It's one of those things we've struggled with at times during the season," Erstad said of the fly-outs. "But our guys are really good at locking it back in when they need to, which they did at the end.
"I still haven't found that formula to make them do it the entire game. It's a work in progress."
Nebraska, it should be noted, pounded 14 hits, nobody struck out, and the Huskers executed multiple sacrifice bunts. Two outs from elimination, they responded with a flourish, again. Big shock.
"It was just really an ugly game all-around," Pritchard said. "We went up 4-0 and I think we kind of thought we were going to roll through it. Next thing you know, we were down 6-5 and fighting for our lives.
"We did enough to win. We have to clean it up if we want to make a run at this thing."
One would be foolish to pick Nebraska to win the regional. But I'm guessing the Huskers will make it interesting. Erstad, thanks to sound management of the pitching staff, has three proven starters ready to roll. The return of senior right-hander Christian DeLeon could spark the team.
"We have what it takes," said Hirsch, nary a shred of doubt in his voice, despite an onerous task ahead.