CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Nebraska lost the first game of a doubleheader at Illinois on Saturday on a ninth-inning squeeze bunt, but the Huskers rebounded to take the conference-opening series with a 6-4 win in the nightcap.
Sophomore Pat Kelly, who had three hits in Saturday’s opener, came through with a two-out, two-run single in the top of the eighth inning of the second game, breaking a 4-4 tie and clinching a series full of back-and-forth games against the Illini (14-6, 1-2 Big Ten).
There were two lead changes in the first game Saturday and two more in the second. But the NU bullpen escaped a couple of jams and Kelly delivered what proved to be the game-winner as the Huskers (8-14, 2-1) hung on in the rubber match to beat a squad that had won 12 of its last 13 before the weekend.
“It was a good team victory,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said on the Husker Sports Network.
Illinois got an 8-7 win in Saturday’s first game. It loaded the bases against NU reliever Caleb Hawkins in the bottom of the ninth, earning the walk-off victory when junior Alex Lincoln bunted the first pitch he saw to drive in shortstop Thomas Lindauer from third base.
Nebraska led briefly in that contest, up 6-4 after scoring three runs in the fifth inning. But Illinois took the momentum back with three runs in its half of the frame.
The offense gave the Huskers a chance, though. They entered the weekend averaging 3.3 runs and 7.5 hits per game, but they scored 22 runs and totaled 39 hits in three games against Illinois.
Kelly tied the opener at 7-7 in the sixth with a two-out RBI single, driving in senior Bryan Peters, who had been hit by a pitch and stolen second.
But Nebraska managed just one hit after that, and Hawkins couldn’t keep Illinois from scoring in the ninth.
Relief pitching, though, might have been the reason Nebraska won the second game.
Junior left-hander Zach Hirsch pitched 313 scoreless innings and senior closer Dylan Vogt, who threw 35 pitches Friday, gave up one hit over 223 innings of work.
The Illini had been benefiting from clutch hitting all day, scoring four runs with two outs against Nebraska starter Ryan Hander in the first game and four against junior Brandon Pierce in the second and third innings of the nightcap. And they had their chances against Hirsch and Vogt.
Illinois loaded the bases with one out in the fifth and seventh innings. But Hirsch used a double play to escape a fifth-inning jam. And Vogt entered in relief two frames later, getting catcher Kelly Norris-Jones to bounce a bunt back to him before striking out sophomore outfielder Will Krug.
NU capitalized on the momentum shift in the eighth inning.
Sophomore Blake Headley reached base to lead off the eighth inning — the third walk he drew during the second game. After a sacrifice bunt moved him to second base, Peters reached on an error. But Rich Sanguinetti struck out, bringing up Kelly with two outs.
Kelly lined the first pitch he saw into right-center field, scoring Headley and Peters, who’d stolen second.
“Pat picked up his teammate,” Erstad said, “and that’s what good teammates do.”