Aaron Palensky

Outfielder Aaron Palensky (24), runs the bases during the Huskers' game against Omaha at Werner Park on Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in Omaha, Nebraska.

After sweeping Penn State 11 days ago, Nebraska baseball took first place in the conference standings and owned its best start since 2015-16 at 20-10.

Since then, the Huskers have lost four of their last six games, including a 2-1 series loss to Iowa. Now, Nebraska (11-4 Big Ten) is second in the conference, sandwiched between first place Indiana (9-3) and third place Michigan (8-3).

Nebraska will get a chance to rebound and possibly take back first place this weekend as it faces Illinois (26-13, 6-6 Big Ten).

Last year, the Huskers closed their season by losing the series against Illinois 2-1.

Despite a subpar conference record, the Illini seem to be heating up. Illinois has won six of its last eight conference games, including a sweep against Penn State. The Illini are also coming off a 4-2 win against Bradley in extra innings.

Illinois has found success both at the plate and on the mound. The Illini rank No. 2 in the Big Ten in batting average (.282). They are led by senior Grant Van Scoy and junior Michael Massey, who rank fifth (.353) and sixth (.343) in the Big Ten in batting average, respectively.

Illinois has struggled to turn those hits into runs. It ranks sixth in the Big Ten in total runs and RBIs, and is tied for fifth in home runs. In Big Ten play, things have gotten even worse for the Illini, as they rank ninth in both batting average and runs scored.

However, they have been strong from the mound this year. Illinois ranks third in the Big Ten in ERA and first in opposing batting average. The Illini have also been able to finish games strong, leading the Big Ten with 14 total saves. 

Junior Ty Weber and senior Andy Fisher are the two leading pitchers for the Illini. Weber ranks No. 11 in the Big Ten in ERA and No. 12 in opposing batting average. Fisher ranks No. 8 in opposing batting average and strikeouts and is one of three Illini pitchers with four wins on the year.

Junior Garrett Acton has also come up big for Illinois late in games. Acton has a 1.59 ERA in 22.2 innings pitched and leads the Big Ten in saves with 13.  

To win this game, the Huskers will have to break out of a scoring slump. In its first 30 games, Nebraska was never shut out and was held to one run just once. In the last six games, the Huskers were shut out by Kansas State and held to a single run in a loss to Creighton.  

The Huskers have averaged around 6.1 runs per game on the season, but have scored just 3.8 per game over the last six games. They also batted .261 on the year, but have only managed to hit .212 over the six-game rough patch.

Nebraska’s leading hitter this year has been sophomore Aaron Palensky, who has a .333 batting average. He has also fallen into a slump, batting .286 over the last six games.

Strong pitching has been one thing that may help Nebraska get back on track. In conference play, the Huskers rank second in ERA and are tied with Illinois for No. 2 in opposing batting average. They also lead the Big Ten in saves in conference play.

The senior pitching trio of Nate Fisher, Reece Eddins and Mike Waldron have led Nebraska on the mound in Big Ten play. In conference play, Fisher is No. 13 in the Big Ten in ERA and No. 4 in opposing batting average. Eddins ranks No. 8 in ERA and is tied for the Big Ten lead in wins. Waldron is No. 5 in ERA in and leads the team with 30 strikeouts.

Nebraska and Illinois are two teams with similar records that seem to be heading in different directions. However, a series win could do a lot to help Nebraska get back on track.