Junior right-hander Chance Sinclair doubled his career high in strikeouts with 10, while Austin Darby and Ryan Boldt each homered in a 2-1 series-opening victory for the No. 26 Nebraska baseball team (36-17, 17-5 Big Ten) over the Illinois Fighting Illini (30-18, 16-6 Big Ten). The Huskers have now won eight-straight games and are a perfect 7-0 in the month of May. With a victory tomorrow, the Huskers can secure at minimum the No. 2 seed at next week’s Big Ten Tournament.
Sinclair put together one of his best pitching performances of the season on Thursday night, limiting the Illini to three hits and one walk over 7.0 innings to improve to 9-1 on the year. The Spring Hill, Kan., native’s 10 strikeouts were the most by a Husker since Tyler Niederklein struck out 10 against Northern Colorado on March 22, 2011, and were the most in a conference game by a Husker since Thad Weber sat down 11 against Kansas on March 18, 2008. Sinclair retired the Illini in order five times on the night and after giving up an one-out RBI single to Reid Roper in the fourth inning, the 6-4 righty retired the final 11 batters he faced.
Zach Hirsch shut the door with 2.0 innings of perfect relief to earn his third save of the season. Sinclair and Hirsch combined to retire the final 17 Illini batters of the game.
Illinois’ Drasen Johnson nearly matched Sinclair on the mound, but fell to 5-6 on the year. Johnson went all 8.0 innings for the Illini and allowed just two runs on five hits and a walk, while striking out five Huskers. After Boldt broke a 1-1 tie with a leadoff homer in the sixth, Johnson gave the Illini offense a chance by retiring the final nine Huskers of the game.
Darby broke the scoreless tie in the bottom of the second inning when he launched a two-out 0-1 offering from Johnson into the visitor’s bullpen beyond the right-field wall for his second homer of the season.
With just one hit in the first three innings, the Illini were able to scratch across a run in the fourth to tie the game. After retiring the first batter of the inning, Sinclair walked David Kerian and then gave up consecutive singles to Jason Goldstein and Roper. With runners on the corners and one out, Sinclair picked up his sixth and seventh strikeouts of the game to keep the game tied, 1-1. The fourth was the only time in the game that Sinclair was stressed on the mound, as he was forced to throw 31 of his 114 pitches on the night.
After Sinclair got back to work and sat the Illini down in order in the fifth and sixth innings, Boldt put the Huskers back on top with leadoff bomb off the back wall in the visitor’s bullpen, also on a 0-1 offering from Johnson.
Neither team notched a base runner the rest of the game, with the series opener lasting just 1:49. It was the second shortest game of the year for the Huskers, as NU’s finale against Ohio State was 1:45.
Thursday’s win was Head Coach Darin Erstad’s 100 victory at Nebraska, becoming the fifth head baseball coach in school history with 100 wins.
The Huskers and Illini meet for game two of their three-game series tomorrow night at 6:35 p.m.