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Like the 6,354 fans in attendance at Hawks Field, Darin Erstad saw a masterpiece of a college baseball game that ended last Saturday when Pat Kelly delivered a three-run, 10th-inning walk-off home run to give Nebraska (37-18, 18-6) a 7-4 win over Illinois and a No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Baseball Tournament that begins Wednesday.
“That was a great college baseball game. I don’t think you can find a better atmosphere,” Erstad said in his post-game interview on the Huskers Sports Network. “I can’t believe the weather and over 6,000 people (Nebraska’s largest home crowd in six years)…two teams pitching really well…playing great defense…a lot of intensity and a lot of athleticism on the field…we were fortunate to come out on top of that…a great experience for everyone.”
The Huskers’ reward is the opportunity to play No. 7-seeded Ohio State at 1 p.m. CT Wednesday after No. 3 Illinois plays No. 6 Michigan State in the 9 a.m. tournament opener. In expanding the tournament from six to eight qualifiers for the first time in 14 seasons, No. 1 Indiana will face No. 8 Iowa in Game 3 at 5 p.m. Wednesday, and No. 4 Minnesota will collide with No. 5 Michigan in the 9 p.m. first-day tournament finale.
Fans Can Buy Big Ten Tourney Tickets Here
Fans can buy Big Ten Tournament tickets here. Although the Buckeyes eliminated the Huskers in the 2012 conference tournament and beat Nebraska three times in 2013, NU won three one-run decisions over Ohio State this season in Lincoln – 2-1, 4-3 and 3-2.
The Big Ten Tournament is a defining moment for Nebraska’s third season under Erstad. As much as he enjoyed seeing his Huskers hit the ball out of the park over the weekend, “we need to do a better job of getting back to what we believe in,” Erstad said, “because I can guarantee you one thing – when we play in the Big Ten Tournament, those balls aren’t going out of the stadium (at Omaha’s TD Ameritrade Park). We’re going to have to go back to what we do best – hit some line drives.”
On his monthly radio show Monday night, Erstad reiterated the need to multiply hits and base runners, even though the Huskers were able to finish the regular season on a good note. “Last year,” he pointed out, “we ended (the regular season) on a bad note.”
Huskers Rank First in Four Major Categories
The Huskers have momentum and rank first in the Big Ten in four major categories – hits (558), RBIs (303), walks (201) and sacrifice bunts (51). That combination of firepower, patience and precision has enabled Nebraska to come from behind or tied after six innings and go on to win 12 games this season. Three clutch performance wins came against first-round foe Ohio State. Nebraska was down 2-0 heading into the bottom of the eighth before winning the first game of the series, 3-2. A day later, the Huskers trailed 3-0 after seven innings before scoring one in the eighth and three in the ninth to win, 4-3, thanks to Michael Pritchard’s walk-off single. In the of the series finale, the Huskers beat the Buckeyes, 2-1, in the ninth, with Tanner Lubach’s walk-off single the difference.
If Nebraska and Illinois win their respective tournament openers, the Huskers and Fighting Illini will meet in a 5 p.m. Thursday match-up. On Erstad’s Monday night radio show, host Lane Grindle asked Nebraska’s former All-American if Illinois was a solid NCAA Tournament team. Erstad responded with a positive “no question about it” comment. Considering Nebraska’s latest weekend accomplishment, here are five compelling facts that reflect how the Huskers have won nine of their last 10 games:
1) The Huskers are 8-1 in the Big Ten during that 10-game stretch and 4-0 on the road. 2) Pat Kelly has hit .429 (15-for-35) with three doubles, two home runs, and 15 RBIs. 3) Zach Hirsch has thrown 10.2 innings of scoreless relief, and closer Josh Roeder has contributed 5.1 innings of scoreless relief in five appearances that produced a win and three saves. 4) Kelly and Blake Headley each produced five multi-hit games. 5) Four Huskers have double-digit hit numbers in the last 10 games – Kelly (15), Headley (13), Pritchard (12) and Ryan Boldt (11).
Pritchard Wants to Make Up for Missed Magic Moment
Last weekend, Pritchard had four hits against Illinois, including two singles, a double and an RBI in Saturday’s series finale. The effort enabled Pritchard to pass Alex Gordon and Mark Kister and claim the No. 10 spot on Nebraska’s all-time career hit club. On Monday’s radio show, Erstad talked about how much Pritchard wanted to be the hitter who produced a walk-off win in the 10th inning, but to no avail. That triggered a conversation about how much Pritchard has matured since Erstad was a volunteer assistant coach four seasons ago. Witnessing such growth, Erstad said, is one of the greatest experiences of being a coach.
While he may have missed a personal magic moment on Senior Day, the Big Ten Tournament gives Pritchard many more opportunities to show his maturity and demonstrate his leadership. He knows the bottom line is how much is on the line. He also knows that Nebraska has not qualified for the NCAA Tournament in six years, so stay tuned. The Michael Pritchard Story has several chapters yet to be written, and you can be sure about one thing. He cares about winning more than individual statistics. That’s why he’s focused on the only place Erstad wants everyone’s focus to be – the team and doing whatever is necessary to extend the season…together.
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