TULSA, Okla. — UNO senior Payton Kinney was named the Summit League’s top pitcher Tuesday night.
He celebrated the award by pitching the Mavericks to their first Division I postseason win hours later.
Top-seeded UNO (29-21-1) carried a 13-run lead into the ninth inning before settling for a 15-9 win over Western Illinois (22-30) in the opening game of the Summit tournament at J.L. Johnson Stadium.
Kinney (10-1), who secured an NCAA waiver to pitch this spring after losing most of last year to an arm injury, matched UNO’s D-I record for single-season victories as he tossed six shutout innings.
“It’s all been pretty surreal. Coming off an injury and having such a great team, I’m so glad I came back for my sixth year. It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “The guys have all worked so hard. The offense came to play.”
Every Mav in the lineup had at least one hit and either scored or drove in a run. Kinney, meanwhile, equaled the win total of Tyler Fox from 2016. The former UNO ace, who won a school-record 30 games in his career, went 10-2 that year as the Mavs qualified for their first Summit tourney as a No. 2 seed.
Fox threw seven strong innings for UNO in its first postseason game and left with a 5-1 lead. But Purdue Fort Wayne scored six runs in the ninth to stun the Mavs 8-6. UNO was eliminated from that tournament the next day.
Coach Evan Porter was an assistant on Bob Herold’s staff when that occurred. He admitted on Wednesday that he was having flashbacks as Western Illinois scored its seven runs in the ninth inning.
“This was a must-win game, and we lost a wild one here a few years back,” the third-year coach said. “There’s never any sort of peace until that final out is made. Guys did a good job of battling to the end.”
The Leathernecks managed very little in the first six innings against Kinney, who scattered three singles in an 84-pitch effort. Only one of the first 15 WIU batters reached base. He got himself out of a small jam in the fifth inning when he struck out Kevin Raisbeck with the bases loaded.
“Pitching is pitching, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a little extra juice today,” Kinney said. “Every strikeout is a little bigger. Every out means a little more. I was definitely a little pumped up. Just trying to control my excitement is the biggest thing — trying to stay cool, calm and collected and doing what I do.”
UNO jumped on Western Illinois starter Javin Drake, stringing together four consecutive singles to open the second to grab a 3-0 lead. Ben Palensky doubled the advantage in the third with a three-run home run.
The Mavs added two runs in the fourth and three in the fifth to give Kinney an 11-0 lead. Brett Bonar’s two-run double highlighted a four-run eighth for UNO, which needed the insurance.
“Our offense set the tone in the second inning, and they kept going,” Porter said. “It was a good day to hit here. And every run mattered. Those four runs we scored in the bottom of the eighth were huge.”
Western Illinois had three hits in its ninth-inning rally as UNO’s relievers walked five. Dillon Sears had a two-run single and Drue Galassi drove in three with a bases-loaded double before the end.
“I can’t even explain how tense I was,” Kinney said. “I’ve never been so tense with an 11-run lead. Their hitters are scrappy. They put together some good at-bats. They made it a ballgame there at the end.”
The Mavs will face either South Dakota State or Oral Roberts. That game was postponed to noon Thursday after a lightning strike near the park knocked out power.
UNO plays for a spot in the league championship game on Friday.
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