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March 25, 2012

Huskers hammer Illinois in series finale

Nebraska vs. Illinois game 3 box score

In Friday's Big Ten opener, the Huskers were embarrassed by Illinois 11-3 on their home field. That didn't sit well with the players, and they spent the rest of the weekend taking that anger out on Illini pitching.

After Saturday's 18-5 victory, the Huskers crushed Illinois 13-3 in Sunday's series finale to move to 17-9 on the season and 2-1 in Big Ten play.

"They were ticked off," coach Darin Erstad said. "They got whooped on their home field in a historic opener. They responded. They wanted to come out and stake their ground and I think they did that."

The Huskers mashed the ball Saturday, but Sunday they were able to combine that offensive production with solid pitching thanks to a brilliant outing by Zach Hirsch. The sophomore pitched seven innings and allowed just three hits - none after the fourth inning - and gave up one run in his best start of the season.

"We needed a starting pitcher to set the tone because we've had a tough time," Erstad said. "He did give up one in the first, but he kept it together and mixed his pitches very nicely. These guys are ultra-aggressive early in the count and you have to make your pitch, and he did that today."

Nebraska starters have fallen into a habit of giving up early runs, and Hirsch was no exception. He gave up a double to lead off the game to Thomas Lindauer, and the Illinois shortstop came around to score two batters later.

But that was the peak for Illinois' offense for the day. Hirsch mixed his fastball and changeup very effectively and pitched quickly, keeping the Illini hitters off balance.

"I think at times I've struggled with having balls up in the zone," Hirsch said. "Today I was down for the most part and you could see a lot of success in it. I know it sounds pretty simple, but Coach Silva has preached it all year, being from belt to knees. It's about competing with the best stuff you have that day and staying down."

Of course, it's always easier to pitch well when your offense is bludgeoning the opposition.

The Huskers had 14 hits and scored double-digit runs for the ninth time this season. Junior shortstop Chad Christensen led the team with three hits and four RBIs, and first baseman Richard Stock and designated hitter Kash Kalkowski contributed three RBIs apiece.

The Huskers got on the board in the first with an RBI groundout from Christensen. They added three in the fourth and another in the fourth when senior right fielder Kale Kiser led off with a solo blast to right field.

Not that he needed it, but Nebraska gave Hirsch plenty of insurance runs by tallying four more runs in the sixth inning and another three in the seventh.

"Our approach was fantastic up and down the lineup pretty much the entire weekend and if you do that, you're going to score some runs," Erstad said.

The Huskers will take on Kansas State at 6:35 on Tuesday before heading to Northwestern for their first Big Ten road trip next weekend.

Around the horn

***Hirsch's seven innings tied a season-high. He also threw seven frames against West Virginia on March 2. The sophomore threw 102 pitches Sunday.

***Christensen reached his on-base streak alive with his bunt single in the second inning. He's reached base in all 26 games this season, the only Husker to do so.

***Rich Sanguinetti's first-inning double brought his hitting streak to ten games. Christensen and Stock have the team's longest hitting streaks this year, as both has 11-game runs earlier in the season.

***The Huskers improved to 11-3 when Michael Pritchard bats leadoff. They are 5-5 with anyone else in the top spot.

***Illinois' five hits were a season-low.

***The game's attendance was 5,266. More than 5,000 fans attended every game of the series.

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