CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Nebraska set the tone with its aggressive approach at the plate Friday afternoon, winning its Big Ten opener 9-5 against surging Illinois.
The Huskers (7-13, 1-0 Big Ten) had a season-high 16 hits, and all those base runners helped to put pressure on the Illini defense. They worked counts, executed well-timed hit and runs and stayed active when they reached base against the Illini, who had won 12 of their last 13.
It wasn’t perfect, NU coach Darin Erstad said, but the Huskers may be starting to get back to the style of attack that produced one of the nation’s best offenses last year.
“Our bats showed some signs of life,” Erstad said during a postgame radio interview.
Nebraska had at least one base runner in every inning, never letting Illinois starter Kevin Johnson settle in.
The Huskers did lose their early 4-0 lead when the Illini (13-5, 0-1) tied it at 5-5 in the bottom of the sixth, but the NU hitters were able to answer right away.
Sophomore outfielder Austin Darby hit a double in the seventh that scored junior Michael Pritchard, putting the Huskers back in front 6-5. Then senior third baseman Josh Scheffert blooped a double into right field, driving in Darby. Scheffert crossed the plate to make it 8-5 on a hit-and-run single by catcher Tanner Lubach.
Closer Dylan Vogt picked up his fourth save, pitching efficiently enough that Erstad said he could appear in Saturday’s doubleheader. Action will begin at 12:05 p.m.
The Husker hitters, meanwhile, will be looking to sustain their effectiveness at the plate Saturday.
They had success against Johnson, who’d given up two earned runs in his last 21 innings.
In the third inning, Johnson threw wildly toward home plate after fielding a bunt with two runners on. After a run-scoring groundout, first baseman Kash Kalkowski lined an RBI triple down the left-field line and eventually scored on a throwing error by shortstop Thomas Lindauer.
Pritchard’s sacrifice bunt put two more Huskers in scoring position an inning later, when NU added a run on Chad Christensen’s groundout to take a 5-2 advantage.
But junior right-hander Christian DeLeon couldn’t hold the lead against the Illini.
DeLeon, who gave up a two-out, two-run double in the third inning, fell behind 3-1 against Justin Parr in the fifth. Parr won the battle, driving in two runs with a two-out single. Illinois senior Brandon Hohl tied the game with an RBI double off DeLeon in the sixth.
But DeLeon retired three straight after a throwing error by shortstop Wes Edrington to begin the seventh. Then Vogt took over from there.
DeLeon “grinded it out,” Erstad said. “He did a nice job of battling, facing some pretty good hitters.”