After a heartbreaking loss in game one of Saturday's doubleheader, the Huskers gave the Illini a taste of their own medicine in the series finale. With two outs in the top of the eighth inning, Pat Kelly slapped a two-RBI single to give Nebraska a 6-4 lead and Dylan Vogt shut the door from there to give NU the series victory.
"You can't tell if he 0-fer or 5-fer," Darin Erstad said of Kelly on his postgame radio appearance. "He just keeps swinging. Two-out hits are hard to come by and now they're coming."
Illinois, which had won 12 of its past 13 games coming into the series, won the first game of the doubleheader 8-7 with a bases-loaded bunt in the bottom of the ninth inning. The knowledge that they were so close to a series sweep will sting, but the Huskers (8-14, 2-1) can certainly be happy with the results of the weekend.
Offense dominated the first two games of the series and it appeared that would continue in the rubber match. Nebraska scored a run in the first and three more in the third, staking Brandon Pierce out to a lead. But the junior's wild tendencies showed once again, as he gave up two runs in both the second and third innings after getting the first two batters out.
"We tried in every way possible to throw that game away early," Erstad said. "We got the first two outs quick, then we just decided to walk people and hit batters and make it really difficult on ourselves. We're not good enough to do that as a team. We did a great job of fighting back."
But the game shifted as each team turned to its bullpen. The Huskers were stymied for four straight innings, but the Illini couldn't take advantage thanks to yet another strong performance by Zach Hirsch. The lefty gave up five hits in his 3.1 innings, but managed to wiggle out of a couple of jams to keep the score tied.
Hirsch and Vogt's work set the scene for Kelly's heroics in the eighth. Vogt shut the door in the ninth thanks to several strong defensive plays by Bryan Peters.
"Zach did a great job," Erstad said. "He's found a nice role in that spot and done well for us. And I told Vogt, 'You better have your rest boy, because you're going to get used a lot in conference play.' He'll do whatever he needs to do and he came out and just kept rolling. We could have put (Josh) Roeder in, but Dylan was doing so well, so we just let him keep going."
The thrill of victory helped to erase some of the pain from the loss in the first game of the doubleheader, NU's fourth walk-off loss of the season, in which both offenses provided plenty of fireworks. The Illini struck first by scoring a pair of runs in the second by Ryan Hander, who struggled mightily for most of his outing. Nebraska tied the game in the top of the third, but Illinois responded back with two more runs in the bottom of the frame.
The two offenses traded punches for several innings, but after a Kelly RBI single tied the game 7-7 in the top of the sixth, neither team could get on the board. Nebraska had just one hit the rest of the way and didn't get any runners past second base.
Illinois didn't have the same struggles. It loaded the bases with one out in the bottom of the eighth, but Caleb Hawkins rescued a struggling Aaron Bummer by getting out of the inning without any damage.
Nebraska's luck wouldn't last, however, as Illinois got right back to work in the ninth. Travis Lindauer started the frame with a double and Hawkins walked the next batter. The Illini loaded the bases when Kelly couldn't catch the ball at first after a bunt attempt. With the bases loaded and one out, Illinois bunted again and Hawkins' throw home wasn't in time.
The Huskers will end their long road trip with a contest against Kansas State at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday.
Around the horn
***Josh Scheffert left midway through the first game with an undisclosed injury. Blake Headley took his place at third.
***Peters tied Kale Kiser for third place in career hit by pitches when he was plunked in the sixth. He has been hit 46 times in his career. Kalkowski was also hit by a pitch, his team-leading ninth plunking of the year.
***Nebraska had eleven infield hits in the series.
***Chad Christensen extended his hitting streak to 11 games.