Before Thursday's critical series opener against Illinois, Darin Erstad thought his team looked a bit sluggish - the 28-hour travel fiasco from Monday and Tuesday might have had something to do with that.
Combine Nebraska's lethargy with Illini pitcher Drasen Johnson, who came into the game with a 3.11 ERA and was on top off his game, and picking up a critical win looked like a tall task.
Enter Chance Sinclair. The junior fanned a career-high 10 batters, the most strikeouts by an NU pitcher since 2011, and gave up just one run in seven standout innings, and solo shots by Ryan Boldt and Austin Darby helped the Huskers pick up the 2-1 win.
At 36-17 on the season and 17-5 in the Big Ten, Nebraska will secure the second seed in the Big Ten Tournament if it defeats Illinois again Friday or Saturday.
"You could just tell," Erstad said of his team's listless manner early on. "It was more mentally than physically. Just some of the things they were saying, you could tell the networks weren't all connected at times.
"Thankfully, Chance had the comfy seat on the bus because he was really sharp. That might have been the best he's thrown the ball since he's been here."
Both pitchers benefitted from a generous zone by the home plate umpire, a nugget Sinclair picked up early on and used to his advantage.
"It makes it easier when you've got a bigger zone behind the plate," Sinclair said. "I just kept seeing how far I could push it out there, and he kept giving it to me… I was spotting my fastball early, which set up my changeup later in the game. The umpire was giving me some generous calls and I kept the ball low. It seemed to work."
Sinclair didn't struggle much, but Illinois did get to him in the fourth. With one out, Sinclair walked a batter and gave up consecutive singles that allowed a run to score. But with men on first and third, Sinclair struck out the next two to escape the jam.
Johnson was nearly as good as Sinclair, but he made a pair of mistakes that Nebraska made him pay for. Darby clubbed a home run to right in the second inning, then Boldt belted a no-doubter in the sixth.
"Johnson had a great angle on his fastball and his changeup kept us off balance," Erstad said. "We were beating the ball into the ground left and right. He made a couple mistakes and fortunately we got lucky. But he didn't make many and he pitched very well."
Sinclair left the game with 114 pitches after the seventh inning, and Zach Hirsch took care of the rest, posting two perfect innings to close out the game. Hirsch and Sinclair combined to retire the final 17 batters of the game.
"This gives us the momentum for the rest of the weekend for sure," Sinclair said. "We've got to come out and do the same thing tomorrow."
Starter Chance Sinclair: With Christian DeLeon on the shelf, Sinclair has stepped seamlessly into the Friday (or in this case, Thursday) night role. He improved to 9-1 with the victory, the most wins an NU pitcher has had in a season since Thad Weber won nine in 2008.
Centerfielder Ryan Boldt: The freshman just keeps getting better and better. On a night where the rest of Nebraska's lineup couldn't figure Johnson out, Boldt had three hits, including the home run. Boldt actually outhit the other eight Huskers combined 3-2.
Around the horn
***The win was the 100th of Erstad's career.
***Hirsch has pitched in each of Nebraska's last four games. He pitched two innings to earn his third save of the season.
***Michael Pritchard's 16-game hitting streak came to an end. The senior went hitless in three at-bats Thursday night.
***The attendance was 3,304. The game was completed in a blazing one hour and 49 minutes, the second-shortest game of the year.