Arizona State outfielder Carter Aldrete tried to energize a quiet dugout as the Sun Devils attempted to rally from a one-run deficit in the ninth inning Saturday.
"This (expletive) game is on the line!" Aldrete shouted.
Moments later, Nebraska junior outfielder Mojo Hagge banged hard into the left-field wall as he snared Drew Swift's line drive with a runner on first base. It was Hagge's second defensive gem of the day; he also made a diving catch in the fifth inning of his team's 2-1 triumph.
Hagge's plays drew a rise out of the crowd 5,403 at Haymarket Park. But I was surprised by the amount of vacant chair-back seats on a pleasant 65-degree day. Energy in the stadium throughout the game was only so-so. It felt as if Nebraska fans were waiting for Arizona State's offense -- averaging nearly nine runs per game -- to wake up and spoil the day.
It's easy to understand why the Husker faithful might be a bit skittish. Darin Erstad's crew had dropped three straight Big Ten series before this weekend's break from conference play. What's more, NU, now 25-19 overall, has only 23 home runs on the season; ASU has 81.
Sun Devils center fielder Hunter Bishop has 22 bombs and leads the team with a .365 batting average. But he struck out three times Saturday as the Huskers' pitching was superb from start to finish, as was their defense. Neither team committed an error.
"They got their tails kicked (15-6) last night, came out aggressively today and got a really, really quality start from (Nate Fisher)," said Arizona State head coach Tracy Smith, who lamented his squad's 14 strikeouts.
The Sun Devils indeed took a lot of big swings. Sometimes even power hitters have to cut down their swings in certain situations for the good of the team.
"Plus, we just didn't get the two-out hits, and that happens sometimes in baseball," Smith said.
Spencer Torkelson, Arizona State's right-handed slugging first baseman, blasted his 19th home run of the season in the sixth inning, a towering shot over the left-field berm that seemed to leave even his teammates in awe.
A 6-foot-1, 220-pounder, Torkelson last season became the first freshman to lead the nation in home runs, finishing with 25 on the season. At Casa Grande (California) High School, he was rated the No. 32 overall player in the state and No. 2 third baseman.
The 6-5, 210-pound Bishop, of Palo Alto, California, is projected as a top-10 selection in this year's major-league draft.
Yeah, it's safe to say Arizona State's roster is filled with much more overall athleticism than Nebraska's. That almost goes without saying, right? I watched the game from near the Sun Devils' dugout, and the difference is evident. Which perhaps explains why it felt like the home crowd was waiting for the bottom to fall out.
It never did, though. Nebraska earned a critical victory that enhances its chances to land an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. When the teams finish the series at 1:05 p.m. Sunday, many Husker fans will be mindful that Erstad's squad is now only two games behind Michigan in the Big Ten standings, as the Wolverines (36-13, 14-5) dropped the first two games of their weekend series with second-place Indiana (33-17, 14-6).
Nebraska, 13-8 in league play, obviously could pick up a major dose of momentum with a series win against 20th-ranked Arizona State. Of course, Michigan comes to Lincoln next weekend. This stuff is getting interesting.
I'm guessing the energy at Haymarket will pick up a notch or two Sunday.