Creighton combined a step-up performance by Michael Blatchford on Friday night with the shutdown pitching of Tommy Strunc, Mark Winkelman and Jake Peter in posting a 5-3 win against Nebraska.
The Bluejays’ victory in the marquee game of the TD Ameritrade Classic came without the services of Mike Gerber, their leading power hitter and impeccable center fielder. He underwent an appendectomy Friday and will be sidelined indefinitely.
With Gerber out, Creighton moved left fielder Brad McKewon to center and started Blatchford in left field for the second time this season. The senior from Columbus, Neb., had two hits, drove in a run and scored what proved to be the decisive run in the seventh inning.
“Our guys rallied around the fact that they knew Mike was out,” Bluejays coach Ed Servais said. “What a neat opportunity for Michael to step up and have a tremendous game.
“Our guys have dealt with a lot of adversity the last couple of weeks, and today they rose up and played maybe their best game of the year.”
Creighton never trailed in front of 8,395 fans at TD Ameritrade Park, who watched the first Friday night meeting between the teams since 1997. Six Bluejays had multi-hit games, and five drove in a run.
Strunc, who had taken a no-hitter into the ninth inning of his previous start, pitched into the seventh and left with a 4-1 lead after walking Blake Headley to open the inning.
Reliever Mark Lukowski gave up a single and a walk to load the bases with no outs. Winkelman came on and surrendered a run-scoring single to Rich Sanguinetti that made it 4-2.
The senior left-hander wiggled out of the inning with the lead when he got Pat Kelly to hit into a run-scoring double play and retired Michael Pritchard on a fly ball to Blatchford.
Chad Christensen opened the Nebraska eighth with an infield single and took second when shortstop Alex Staehely’s throw bounced past first baseman Reagan Fowler. Winkelman used a lineout, a groundout and a fly ball to strand Christensen.
Peter, who drove in Creighton’s final run in its half of the ninth, blew away the Huskers on 11 pitches in the bottom half of the inning to record his sixth save.
“We had opportunities to score,” said Nebraska coach Darin Erstad, whose team left seven runners on base. “We just didn’t do what we were capable of doing from an execution standpoint.”
Creighton also squandered some scoring opportunities — leaving nine runners on — but converted enough chances out of its 14 hits. The Bluejays jumped on Nebraska starter Christian DeLeon (5-3) for two runs in the first as Staehely doubled in a run and Fowler drove in another with a groundout.
After Nebraska got a run off Strunc in the third, Blatchford’s RBI single made it 3-1 in the fourth. The single snapped a 0-for-11 skid for Blatchford, who opened the seventh with his second hit of the game.
He moved to second on a single by McKewon, and both runners advanced on a wild pitch by reliever Luke Bublitz. With Nebraska’s infield playing in, Federico Castagnini hit a grounder to second but Blatchford beat the throw home, scoring Creighton’s fourth run with a slick slide to elude catcher Taylor Fish’s tag.
“Michael was huge, just huge,” Peter said. “He had a big game, and that’s what seniors do in games like this. With Mike (Gerber) out, that’s a big blow to us.
“But we’ve battled adversity all year, and guys have been stepping in. Michael did that tonight.”
Blatchford downplayed his individual effort in the win that improved the Bluejays to 23-9.
“This was a great team win,” he said. “That’s what this is all about, the team. All the guys were pulling for Mike Gerber. Guys had to step up, and a lot of guys did tonight.”
That list includes Strunc, a redshirt freshman from Highlands Ranch, Colo., pitching on the biggest stage of his young career.
“I was a little jittery at the start,” said Strunc, who improved to 6-1. “Last year I watched the game and it was nice to be a spectator. This time it was Friday night out against Big Red.
“Once I got that first inning out of the way, it was like, ‘Let’s go to work.’ ”
Facing a Nebraska lineup that had hit .350 in its last four games, Strunc limited the Huskers to three singles and two doubles. He struck out five.
“He commanded the zone really well. Just got us off-balance,” Nebraska shortstop Bryan Peters said. “He threw all his pitches in the strike zone.”
The Huskers dropped to 19-21 and will try to bounce back in a doubleheader against Oklahoma State that begins at 11 a.m. Saturday. Creighton will then face Rutgers at 7 p.m., hoping to build on the momentum of five straight wins.
“There was a lot of intensity tonight, a good crowd and a good atmosphere,” Peter said. “This definitely was a fun game to play in.”
Robinette’s strong start lifts Cowboys
Zach Fish drove in two runs, and Oklahoma State got a strong start from Mark Robinette in posting a 4-1 win against Rutgers in the tournament’s opening game.
Robinette scattered five hits in throwing six shutout innings to improve to 4-0 as Oklahoma State improved to 29-11.
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