Lincoln, Neb. - In a big NCAA Regional winner's bracket game in front of a large Hawks Field crowd of 8,646, the smallest player on the field - UC Irvine junior Ollie Linton - provided the game's biggest hit with his solo home run in the bottom of the sixth inning to give the Anteaters a 3-2 win over the hosts from Nebraska on Saturday night.
Linton's fourth home run of the year provided the power to push UC Irvine to 40-16 on the year while advancing the Anteaters to Sunday's Lincoln Regional Championship Game at Hawks Field at 6:05 p.m.
The 5-8, 160-pound centerfielder from Winnetka, Calif., also knocked the top-seeded Cornhuskers into a loser's bracket elimination game against third-seeded Oral Roberts on Sunday at 1:05 p.m. Nebraska slipped to 41-15-1 overall, while suffering just its fourth home loss of the season to fall to 29-4-1 at Hawks Field in 2008.
Linton's homer against Husker senior ace Johnny Dorn came with one out in the fourth, and dropped the nation's active career win leader to 6-2 on the season. Dorn scattered 11 hits and allowed just three runs over eight solid innings, but suffered his first home loss at Hawks Field since an April 21, 2007 loss to Texas.
Dorn said Linton made him pay for one of his few mistakes on Saturday night.
“I think it was a 1-2 count. I wanted to bury it and didn’t get it on the ground at all. I think it was down in the zone, but he made a good swing and made me pay for my mistake.”
Linton said he was just trying to make contact.
"I don't go up there thinking I'm going to hit a home run. I try to put the ball on the ground and make the defense make the play," Linton said. "If I run into a few balls, I'm happy about it. In that situation, I was trying to keep my same approach and luckily enough, I ran into a curveball that he left a bit higher than he's been during the game."
UC Irvine sophomore Daniel Bibona was the benefactor of Litton's blast, as the left-hander improved to 9-3 on the season. Bibona, who went a career-long eight innings and surrendered just a two-run home run to Jake Opitz. The second-year lefty tossed a four-hit gem and faced the minimum after giving up Opitz's third homer of the regional with two outs in the top of third.
Bibona retired the next six batters he faced after Opitz's blast, before walking Bryce Nimmo on four pitches with two outs in the top of the fifth. But the UC Irvine pitcher picked Nimmo off first to end the inning and did not allow another Husker to reach base, retiring the last nine batters he faced before giving way to Anteater All-America closer Eric Pettis.
Bibona struck out seven and walked just two in a 109-pitch effort, while Pettis worked a perfect ninth to record his 17th save of the season - the second-highest total in the nation.
Nebraska Coach Mike Anderson said he was proud of the effort of the Huskers and gave credit to Bibona for a stellar pitching performance.
“I thought our effort was outstanding. The kids played hard and were very focused," Anderson said. "I thought they were exceptional. Their lefthander (Daniel Bibona) was outstanding. He located every pitch - off-speed, fastballs, you name it. The fastballs were in to right-handers; changeups were out to right-handers. Off-speed was away. He was locating just about everything. That’s pretty tough to hit when a fellow is doing that. We tip our hats to him and try to move on, but I’m pleased with the kids’ effort. I’m disappointed that we lost, but not disappointed in our kids.”
UC Irvine scored first, pushing across a run in the bottom of the second inning on Eric Deragisch's two-out, RBI double. Dillon Bell led off the inning by being hit by Dorn's first pitch. Dorn got Brock Bardeen to ground into a 5-4-3 doubleplay. UCI's Casey Stevenson restarted the rally with a single, and Sean Madigan added another single to set up Deragisch's RBI.
Dorn struck out Aaron Lowenstein to end the Anteater threat, and the Husker bats responded in the top of the third. Ben Kline laced a double to the gap in left-center and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Nimmo. Bibona struck out Jake Mort swinging, before Opitz stepped to the plate and smashed his third homer of the regional deep to right field to give the Huskers a 2-1 lead. It was Opitz's team-leading 11th home run of the season and extended his hitting streak to a career-high 14 games.
The Anteaters found an answer in the bottom of the third despite Dorn striking out the side. Dorn opened by striking out Linton, before Ben Orloff's one-out double to right-center. Jeff Cusick followed with an RBI single to right-center, before Dorn struck out Bell and Bardeen to end the Anteater threat.
After a quiet fourth inning for both teams, Linton took Dorn deep to the right field bullpen for his fourth home run of the season to give the Anteaters the 3-2 win.
UC Irvine Coach Mike Gillespie said he was not sure Litton's home run would be the deciding blow in the game, but he did know it was a big play in a big game.
"I certainly felt that it was big. We as a coaching staff felt that the game would figure to be a 3-2 game," Gillespie said. "Literally, the talk we had before the game was that Danny, who is capable of doing this and who has done it consistently would be able to do what he's always done, which is hold them down. It (the home run by Linton) was the fifth inning and it made it 3-2. I certainly did not feel like we won't get any more or we can't get any more, but on the other hand, you realize that we just got a giant hit. We felt like we had the right guy on the mound and our best defense on the field, so we felt like we were in the best position possible to protect that kind of a lead."