Illinois got off to a hot start as it led 3-0 through the first three innings of action Saturday afternoon.
Unlike the series’ first two games, Nebraska responded with five runs over the next two frames, and then put up a crooked number in the seventh after a brief rally from the home team.
Nebraska (23-29, 7-15 Big Ten) defeated Illinois (31-18, 15-9), 11-8, to avoid getting swept in the final regular season game for both squads.
Batting out of the nine slot in the lineup, Jack Yalowitz jump-started the Illini offense with a two-run home run in his first at-bat.
“I wanted to go and get a fastball early, and put a good swing on it, and that’s what I did,” Yalowitz said. “I go the first pitch and luckily put it over the right field wall when I was trying to barrel something and get us going early.”
Bren Spillane tried to get Illinois back in the game late with his 22nd home run of the season, but his power was not enough.
Spillane leads the Big Ten in most major offensive categories and finishes the regular season with the highest slugging percentage in the nation since 2002.
“I think he deserves to be the Big Ten player of the year, but we’ll see when the voting comes out,” said head coach Dan Hartleb. “It’s going to be tough to not vote for him, I’d say.”
Walks are poison
Similar to the offense, Illinois starting pitcher Ty Weber got off to a strong start, and he allowed a limited number to reach base within the first three innings.
“Both times we had leadoff walks, and you don’t overcome that,” head coach Dan Hartleb said. “We just need to do a better job, and go attack hitters, especially you get a lead, you just have to go eat guys up.”
The first four Husker batters reached base, and in the ensuing at bat after a mound visit from pitching coach Drew Dickinson, there was a passed ball from catcher Jeff Korte, as a result of an apparent sign mix-up with runners on base.
Sophomore reliever Ryan Thompson, who typically serves as a set-up man for the team, limited the damage to only one additional earned run for Weber. Thompson entered the game with two men in scoring position, and he induced back-to-back ground ball outs, but he surrendered two additional runs in the fifth, which gave Nebraska a 5-3 lead.
During the sixth, Illinois put up four runs, and catcher Jeff Korte recorded two RBIs on a double to left field, and Van Scoy recorded an RBI on a sacrifice fly.
Nebraska scored six runs in the seventh inning, following two doubles off the outfield wall, in addition to a deep sacrifice fly to right field.
Troike’s streak continues
Sophomore shortstop Ben Troike, another standout for the team this season, just barely continued his 53-game on-base streak with a walk in the ninth inning. He led off the inning and worked full-count walk.
Despite the implications of the streak, considering that it dates back to last season, Troike explained after the game that it wasn’t on his mind, and that he chose to work the count because he thought the pitcher (check name) was struggling a bit with his command.
“I was trying to get something going and find any way to get on base,” Troike said.
While reflecting upon the season, he credited much of his success to hitting in front of the standout slugger, Spillane.
“I’m getting a lot more pitches to hit this year, and guys aren’t trying to walk me in big spots, so a lot of the time, I’m getting a good pitch to put a good swing on, and then other times, they’re so focused on not walking me, and not putting me on base, that they struggle to throw strikes.
Road to Omaha
“I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve taken some trips as a little kid, and we watched teams play at TD Ameritrade,” said junior designated hitter — and Nebraska native — Michael Michalak. “It’s going to be a dream come true to play at that ballpark.”
Illinois will open the Big Ten Tournament on Wednesday night versus Indiana.
Had they won Saturday, the Illini would have secured the number-three seed, but the loss dropped the team to the fourth spot.
During his postgame interview, Hartleb referenced that several of his past teams have made the NCAA tournament because of their performance in the Big Ten tournament, and then explained the benefits of a conference field in which “seven of the eight teams have a legitimate at-large chance.”
“The great thing about this tournament is that there are four or five teams that have great RPIs, and (if) you play those teams and beat them, you’re really going to help yourself.”
First pitch is set for 9 p.m.
“We need to perform well in the tournament, or we’ll be left out (of the NCAAs),” Hartleb said.