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May 17, 2014

Kelly's walk-off gives Huskers 7-4 win over Illinois

Senior Michael Pritchard had a dream Friday night that he was going to hit a walk-off home run Saturday, his final chance to play at Haymarket Park.

Turns out he only got part of it right. Pat Kelly stole Pritchard's hero role, blasting a 1-1 changeup over the wall in left for a no-doubt, walk-off homer in the tenth inning that gave Nebraska a 7-4 win over Illinois.

"As soon as I hit it, I knew it was gone," Kelly said. "I tried to savor it a little bit, but it was so much fun."

The victory earned the Huskers (37-18, 18-6) the No. 2 seed in next week's Big Ten Tournament. NU will open tournament play against Ohio State Wednesday at 1 p.m.

"He stole my dream," Pritchard said of Kelly. "I had a dream that I was going to hit a walk-off home run here today, and for PK to do it… it's a little bittersweet. I'm just kidding. But it's unbelievable. That's a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing right there."

Early on it appeared any memories made on senior day would only be sour ones. Kyle Kubat never really found a good rhythm as Illinois scored one run in each of the first three innings and added another in the fifth. Nebraska scored on an RBI double by Pritchard in the third inning and a solo home run by Austin Darby, NU's fourth solo shot of the series, in the fifth, but the Huskers' inability to mount any form of consistent attack made the prospect of victory a precarious one.

The sixth inning turned things around for Nebraska. Tanner Lubach hit a two-out RBI single to score Kelly and put Darby on third. Then Darin Erstad made one of his gutsier calls of the season - he called for a double steal, with Darby taking home.

Illinois pitcher Tyler Jay seemed surprised and hopped off the mound before throwing home, resulting in a balk that tied the game. It was the first time in Erstad's three seasons the Huskers have run the play.

"I thought we'd take a chance and leave early and see what happened," Erstad said.

From there the game belonged to NU's bullpen. Bob Greco pitched 2.1 scoreless innings, Zach Hirsch kept the Illini off the board for 2.1 more frames and Josh Roeder tied his season-high by pitching 1.1 innings to earn his third win of the year.

That set the tone for Nebraska's heroics in the 10th. Jake Placzek walked and Pritchard singled to bring Kelly to plate with a chance to end the game.

"We couldn't get anything started early in any inning this weekend," Erstad said. "We had a few solo home runs, but our boys just kept fighting and going after it and found a way to get it done."

Throughout the contest, Nebraska played videos of the NU seniors on the big screen describing their favorite career moments. Pritchard's video said his best moment was his walk-off hit against Ohio State earlier this season, but Kelly's walk-off changed that answer.

"Number one, hands down," Pritchard said.

Saturday standouts

Second baseman Pat Kelly: Kelly's team-leading fourth home run certainly stands out, but it wasn't the junior's only production of the day. Kelly had three hits in five at-bats, scoring twice.

Relievers Zach Hirsch, Bob Greco and Josh Roeder: It's a bit of a cop-out to list all three, but each member of this trio was instrumental to the victory. The three combined to pitch six shutout innings, allowing just four hits and one walk to give the bats some time to wake up.

Around the horn

***Pritchard passed Alex Gordon on Nebraska's all-time hit list with his first-inning single. Pritchard is now 10th with 243 hits.

***The win was Nebraska's 12th this year when tied or trailing after the sixth inning.

***The attendance was 6,354, the largest crowd since May 31, 2008, a regional game against UC Irvine.

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