OKLAHOMA CITY — Of all the ways to play a baseball game, Nebraska picked a strange one Friday.
But the result is what matters. And for the Huskers, that meant their first NCAA Tournament win since 2014.
Nebraska hitters struck out 16 times, NU pitchers allowed 19 hits, and the Huskers rallied from a three-run, second-inning deficit and ended a five-game losing streak in NCAA regional play with an 8-5 victory over Connecticut at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark.
The triumph was Nebraska's first, first-round regional win since 2008.
"Pretty much standard-issue for this version of the Huskers," NU coach Darin Erstad said afterwards. "When you think something's going to happen, the opposite happens."
In the first 25 minutes of Friday’s game, Nebraska (32-22) fell behind 2-0 and saw second baseman Alex Henwood leave the contest after taking a throw directly off his face while covering first base on a UConn bunt. Henwood, who has fought a shoulder injury most of the season, lost a tooth and some blood, and went to a local dentist for some repair work before returning to the dugout.
By game’s end, the Huskies (36-24) had multiple hits in each of the first seven innings on their way to a season-high 19 hits against Nebraska starter Nate Fisher and reliever Robbie Palkert.
Offensively, Nebraska’s 16 strikeouts were a season-high.
But the Huskers won. The program's last regional victory had come over Binghamton in 2014, also in a regional hosted by Oklahoma State. The last time Nebraska won a first-round regional game was a 13-10 win over Eastern Illinois at Haymarket Park in 2008.
Nebraska was 0-2 in regional appearances in 2016 and 2017.
"I know Angelo (Altavilla) and I have been to three regionals, and up until now we were 0-4, and we were pissed off. I think all of us kind of put that on our backs, and we were saying, 'We're done with this,'" Palkert said. "We hate seeing in the news 'Darin Erstad can't win a regional game.' That's just not true. This team can win baseball games. This team can win a regional."
A few pitches after Henwood left, UConn went on top early when freshman cleanup hitter Pat Winkel delivered a two-out, two-run homer to deep right field. The inning started with back-to-back singles before UConn batter Michael Woodworth popped up a bunt that turned into a double play.
That would become a theme for Fisher. The senior allowed a career-high 13 hits over 4 2/3 innings, including five extra-base hits.
But the left-hander from Yutan also saw his defense turn three double plays behind him to help limit the damage. Nebraska played error-free defense, and the NU pitching staff didn't issue any walks. NU's fourth double play came in the ninth when Colby Gomes came on to close things out.
"They can pound out 18 or 19 hits, but it doesn't matter if no one else is on base. They can hit little broken-bat singles up the middle, or singles through the six-hole, or they can smash balls off the wall. But if nobody's on base it does not matter," Palkert said. "So just continuing to get on that next pitch. You can't be discouraged if you give up a hit.
"It's all about that run column. We came out on top, so that's what it's all about."
After the Huskies scored two more runs in the second on three more hits, Nebraska went to work in the top of the third.
No. 9 hitter Gomes started it with a single, the first of three straight NU singles to start the inning. After Aaron Palensky walked and Spencer Schwellenbach delivered Nebraska’s fourth hit of the inning, Altavilla followed his second-inning home run with a ball that traveled about one-tenth as far and resulted in the Huskers’ fourth run of the inning and a 5-4 lead.
Nebraska added single runs in the fifth, sixth and ninth innings to keep UConn at bay.
Facing UConn left-hander Mason Feole, a preseason All-American, Nebraska finished with 13 hits of its own. Gunner Hellstrom was 3-for-5 while Altavilla and Schwellenbach each had two hits.
Nebraska will face Oklahoma State, the No. 9 national seed, in Saturday's regional semifinals in a game set to start at 7 p.m. The Cowboys defeated Harvard 2-0 Friday.