Nebraska received rude introductions to the Big Ten Conference in football and basketball earlier this year at the hands of Wisconsin. Both teams were blown out in humbling fashion in their first league game.
The baseball team faced a different opponent in Illinois, but the result was all too familiar.
The Fighting Illini pounded out 15 hits and had two four-run innings to beat the Huskers 11-3 in the league opener. NU's second consecutive loss dropped it to 15-9 on the season.
"These guys are the reigning Big Ten champs for a reason," coach Darin Erstad said of Illinois. "They came in our place and took the game to us tonight."
The Illini got to Tom Lemke early as the first three hitters all collected singles. Lemke rebounded after giving up a run and got two outs, but an error by Pat Kelly extended the inning and allowed another run to score.
"(Lemke) didn't have a feel for his stuff early on," Erstad said. "They came to play and they were hitting line drives all over the place and running the bases very aggressively. They took the game to us and had us on our heels. We had to fight back and it should be the other way around."
The Huskers loaded the bases with one out in the second and scored a run on a Kelly groundout. But that was as close as the Huskers would get.
Illinois added a run in the third, then tagged on four in the sixth. The Huskers inched closer with a pair of runs in the eighth, but the Illini squashed any hopes of a comeback with a four-run ninth inning.
Lemke pitched well after the rough first inning until running into trouble in the sixth. He loaded the bases with one out when Erstad called on Dylan Vogt to get out of the jam. The normally surefire reliever wasn't able to put the Illini away, giving up two hits that allowed four runs to come in. All but one of the runs were charged to Lemke, who gave up five earned runs in 5.1 innings.
His pitching counterpart, Kevin Johnson, kept the Huskers off balance all day long. He pitched seven innings, allowing nine hits but only three runs to pick up the win.
Sophomore outfielder Michael Pritchard and junior shortstop Chad Christensen were the only Nebraska players to record multiple hits.
The Huskers had chances to tack on some runs and close the gap, but each time it seemed NU batters smoked pitches right at Illinois fielders.
"There were a couple times we could've had something going and we just couldn't get it," Erstad said. "I thought our approach was fine. At the end of the day, we just couldn't find the holes."
The Huskers and Illini will face off again Saturday at 2:05 for game two of the series.
Around the horn
***Catcher Cory Burleson threw out two baserunners and has now thrown out 10 of 15 this season.
***Lemke threw a season-high 89 pitches as the coaching staff continues to increase his pitch count following offseason surgery to remove a blood clot. His previous high was 80 pitches against Cal.
"It's getting closer. We're making sure he's OK," Erstad said. "We're not going to get too crazy. Just because we're in conference doesn't mean we're going to throw him for 110 pitches. But I think that was a good amount for him and I think he's ready for the next step."