Nebraska baseball entered Sunday ranked ninth in the Big Ten, still fighting for a top-eight finish in the conference and corresponding spot in the Big Ten Tournament.
On the other side, the Illinois Fighting Illini entered Sunday’s series finale between the two squads ranked fourth in the Big Ten, hoping to improve to 14-7 in conference play. It was perhaps fitting that the crucial contest featured high drama, aided by multiple weather delays, and was decided on the game’s final out.
Early in the game, the Huskers tried to swing all of the momentum in their favor.
After leaving two men on base through the first two innings, senior catcher Griffin Everitt singled through a gap on the left side of the infield, setting up a Husker hitting party.
Sophomore infielder Max Anderson followed up Everitt’s hit with a single of his own then advanced to second as junior outfielder Leighton Banjoff drew a walk.
With the bases loaded, senior first baseman Colby Gomes cranked the baseball over the center field wall for a grand slam, giving the Huskers a 4-0 in the top of the third inning.
Unfortunately for the Huskers, momentum soon flipped in Illinois’ favor. After scoring four runs in the third, the Huskers did not score again in the game.
Weather delays also slowed down the Husker momentum, leading to back-to-back scoreless innings in the fourth and fifth for both teams. In the sixth, the Fighting Illini finally struck gold.
Senior outfielder Taylor Jackson singled up the middle of the field and advanced to second on a fielder's choice out to first during the next at-bat. After the next Illinois batter struck out, another single to right field scored Jackson from second, getting Illinois on the scoreboard.
With the deficit cut to three runs, the Fighting Illini could smell blood in the water.
Back-to-back hits to start the seventh for Illinois put runners on the corners and led to a pitching change for Husker manager Will Bolt, as junior pitcher Braxton Bragg entered the game.
Bragg worked his first batter into a shallow pop out, then walked the next batter to load the bases for the Fighting Illini. A sacrifice fly followed by a single from Jackson pushed two runs across the plate in the half inning, with the Huskers’ lead cut to 4-3.
Illinois continued to fight at the plate in the eighth inning, as the Huskers made two additional pitching changes in an attempt to hang on to their slim lead.
A walk and sacrifice bunt put Illinois junior first baseman Justin Janas on second with just one away. The sacrifice bunt led to the second hit of the inning for the Fighting Illini, this time a single up the middle of the diamond to score Janas and tie the game. Bolt chose then to replace Bragg with freshman pitcher Chandler Benson.
After striking his first and only batter, Benson was then pulled for freshman pitcher CJ Hood. Hood worked his breaking ball and finished the inning with no more damage done.
The weather in the Champaign, Illinois area continued to cause issues throughout the afternoon, with the fourth weather delay coming after the end of the eighth inning. After a three hour delay, play resumed for the final inning of the game with the score knotted up at 4-4 entering the ninth. The finish could have gone either way as momentum shifted heavily in both directions throughout the game.
Nebraska had its turn at the plate first in the ninth and got nothing going as Illinois senior pitcher Tommy Green retired the side, giving the Fighting Illini a chance to end things in the bottom half of the inning.
Husker freshman pitcher Corbin Hawkins tried ending the game quickly, as he recorded two outs in a row to start the half inning. The next Illinois batter stepped into the box and singled to left field, putting the winning run on base.
A second consecutive single, this time to left field, was misplayed by Banjoff, and the game-winning run easily scored under Nebraska’s errant relay.
The Huskers will finish off their last four games of the season at Haymarket Park, starting on Tuesday night against Oral Roberts University.