Husker ace Matt Waldron struggles in Nebraska's loss to Illinois

Nebraska's Matt Waldron gave up five earned runs over six innings. He’d only given up 12 heading into Friday night.

LINCOLN — Five minutes after its 8-1 series-opening win over Nebraska, a yell came from Illinois’ side of the baseball diamond.

“We took the (expletive) air out of the stadium tonight!”

The 4,696 fans at Haymarket Park were mostly quiet and mostly long gone by game’s end. But the Illinois dugout was plenty noisy as the Illini shelled NU ace pitcher Matt Waldron and chased Husker groundouts all over the infield.

“That’s not fun to endure,” Waldron said.

And Waldron indeed had to endure it, more than any other Husker.

He hit the first Illinois batter in the shoulder. The second one sent a fierce liner right at Husker second baseman Jaxon Hallmark, who made a leaping, highlight play for an out. After that, Waldron took it on the chin. He gave up five earned runs in three innings. He pitched three more clean ones to help save Nebraska’s bullpen for the final two games of the series, but the damage had been done.

A guy who’d given up 12 earned runs heading into Friday night lacked control on his off-speed pitches and pinpoint accuracy on his fastball. A tight strike zone didn’t help, but Illinois’ 11 hits off Waldron weren’t cheap.

“He threw a lot of balls right down the middle of the plate, and they smashed it,” NU coach Darin Erstad said. He praised Waldron’s toughness and competitiveness for “taking your lumps” and lasting six innings.

“I put it over the middle too much and, once I do that, they get a barrel on and they can hit it where they want,” Waldron said.

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Illinois (27-13 overall and 7-6 in the Big Ten) attacked Waldron early in pitch counts. Bottom-of-the-order hitters Grant Van Scoy and Jacob Campbell hit first-pitch doubles to opposite gaps during a three-run second inning. In the third, Van Scoy, a Papillion-La Vista graduate, hit a ground-rule double into a southwest breeze that brought home two more runs.

Waldron (5-1) posted clean fourth, fifth and sixth innings, but the Illini already led 6-0.

That was more than enough for Illinois pitcher Andy Fisher (5-1), who struck out eight and gave up three hits. The lefty sidewinder issued seven walks — he consistently moved Campbell, his catcher, all over the plate because of control issues — but he didn’t give up an extra-base hit.

When Nebraska (22-15 and 11-5) had runners at second and third base in the second and third innings, Fisher coaxed two infield groundouts. In the first two innings, a fan in the upper deck even scolded NU hitters for watching too many Fisher pitches.

“Swing the bat, that’s what it’s for,” he said.

As the game wore on, Nebraska’s hitters chased too many bad pitches, Erstad said, smacking nine groundouts. NU’s offense has stagnated in recent weeks, averaging just 3.3 runs over its last 10 games, and Erstad said Husker hitters are starting to get frustrated. He heard bats being thrown Friday night. It wasn’t terrible, but he doesn’t want to see it get out of hand.

“You’re not going to get anything done sulking about it,” Erstad said. “You’d better go out there and stay positive and be ready to turn the page for tomorrow.”

Waldron thinks Nebraska will be ready. NU players heard Illinois’ chatter during the game. It’ll provide motivation come 2 p.m. Saturday.

“We’ve just got to wear (it), be ready for the first pitch tomorrow, have a little chip on our shoulder and dish right back at them,” Waldron said.

The loss dropped NU to second in the Big Ten. Because of Michigan’s win over Rutgers Friday night, the Wolverines took over first place in the league. Nebraska landed in second because Indiana lost Minnesota Friday night.

Illinois won its fifth straight, overcoming baserunning errors that led to four outs, including three pickles.

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