A rivalry that doesn't need any extra spice gets some when Nebraska and Creighton play their first Friday night game against each other since 1997.
The 6:35 p.m. game at TD Ameritrade Park provides each a chance to use its ace rather than taking the Johnny Wholestaff approach sometimes used in midweek contests.
And Bluejay starter Tommy Strunc will take some edginess with him to the mound. Asked about how his program sometimes is viewed with second-class status in the Cornhusker state, Strunc replied with a high, hard one.
“Honestly, you can ask every single player on this team and we're going to say we're the better baseball team,” Strunc said. “We believe it and we're going to go out and try to show it.
“We're going to play with a chip on our shoulders because people do say Creighton is second to Nebraska. We're going to go out there and shut them down.”
Whether Strunc provides the Huskers with bulletin board material is inconsequential to a lineup that already is intent on lighting up him or any other pitcher the Bluejays throw out there.
“It's an in-state rivalry,” Nebraska first baseman Kash Kalkowski said. “Creighton wants a piece of us. And we do, too. There's a rivalry there.
“We're going to win or they're going to win. It's a battle. That's what I like.”
Adding to the intrigue of what figures to be the marquee game of the first TD Ameritrade Classic is that this is the first meeting of the season. The teams were scheduled to play in Lincoln on April 9 but rain canceled that contest.
Since then, a Nebraska team that started the season 0-7 has gotten on a 6-3 hot streak that included a five-game winning string that was snapped with Wednesday's 13-10 loss to Kansas State.
That leaves the Huskers 19-20 entering Friday, but with an NCAA RPI of 35, they've played their way back into the postseason discussion.
“They're battled tested,” Bluejay coach Ed Servais said. “They've played as difficult a nonconference schedule as you can play. They're seeing the benefits of their tough schedule.
“This will be the best team we've played all year. You can throw records out the window. No one has played a tougher schedule, and they're not a .500 club. They're much better than that.”
Servais' team enters the game 22-9, including eight wins in its past 11 games. The three losses came two weeks ago in a Missouri Valley Conference series at Indiana State, but Creighton bounced back with four straight wins.
Nebraska coach Darin Erstad wants his players to treat it as any other game.
“If it gets the fans excited and puts more people in the seats, that's awesome,” Erstad said. “I'm all for it. It's a great college baseball experience, but at the end of the day we don't get up (more) for any one game than another.
“You start getting to that business, you're in trouble.”
Erstad will start right-hander Christian DeLeon (5-2, 3.44 ERA). That sets up the first meeting of No. 1 pitchers in the series since 2002, when NU threw Shane Komine against Tom Oldham in a midweek game.
Strunc, a right-hander, brings a 5-1 record and a 3.29 ERA into the 10th start of his redshirt freshman season. He threw eight innings of no-hit ball in his previous start against Southern Illinois, losing the gem on the first pitch of the ninth.
He threw 122 pitches in the game, which complicates matters. Unlike some college coaches, Servais tends to be a bit conservative with his handling of pitchers.
“I look at pitch counts, and Tommy, in his last start, was teetering on that number that is very difficult for me to overcome,” Servais said. “As much as these young guys want to continue to pitch, we have to look at the big picture.
“We still have three conference weekends that we have to play well in if we want to have any at-large chances. I wanted to give Tommy a chance to finish that game but I also had to look at what's best for us, as a team.”
Servais said he intends to watch Strunc's pitch count closely against the Huskers. Though he knows his coach will have his best interest at heart, Strunc wants to stick around as long as he can.
“I'm going to pitch until Coach tells me no,” he said. “It's up to his discretion. I'm the player, he's the coach. But my mindset isn't going to change.
“They have guys with some high batting averages, but every swing has a hole in it. My job is to put it in the hole.”
NOTES: Rutgers and Oklahoma State will get the tournament started with a 2:30 p.m. game Friday. … Nebraska leads the series 81-41-2 and has won five of the last seven meetings. … Opponents are hitting .100 against Strunc in his four starts at TD Ameritrade. He has allowed eight hits in 2513 innings. … The last time the Bluejays and Huskers played on a Friday night was in the Phoenix-Oakland A's tournament in 1997.
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