Illinois Roundup – Reigning B1G Champs TKOed

By at March 26, 2012 | 7:34 AM | Print

Illinois Roundup – Reigning B1G Champs TKOed

The Big Ten just isn’t a baseball conference.

From Minnesota’s John Anderson suggesting the league play in summer, the state of the conference’s facilities, its outside-looking-in conference RPI or the general tendency to only qualify two teams maximum for the NCAA tournament, there’s no real emphasis on the game of hardball.

That was illustrated on Sunday, as Nebraska’s home attendance at Haymarket Park of 5,266 nearly eclipsed the combined 5,616 total attendance of all six other Big Ten games during the day.

When defending Big Ten champion Illinois arrived in Lincoln on Friday, most fans expected Nebraska to bounce back from an embarrassing loss to Northern Colorado and anoint itself king of the B1G from the get-go.

Instead, they saw Nebraska’s Achilles heel, a dominating performance by an opposing pitcher combined with costly errors on the infield.

After an 11-3 rout, fans might’ve questioned the trajectory of this Nebraska baseball team, humiliated on its home field twice in a row. Once by its former coach’s son and alma mater, the second on a historic night.

Instead, the Husker Hardballers bounced back and routed Illinois on Saturday and Sunday by a combined score of 31-8 to improve to 17-9 (2-1 Big Ten) on the season.

The Big Red took advantage of timely hitting, used their aggressive pressure to cause Illinois defensive meltdowns, and pulled out some solid pitching.

Zach Hirsch responded to his demotion from Friday starter to Sunday starter with seven innings of three-hit ball, while only allowing one earned run.

Even more impressive was Saturday’s second inning. The entire Nebraska order reached before Illinois could record an out.

The Husker offense put the pressure on Illinois starter John Kravetz with movement, bunts and a rowdy Husker crowd. Kravetz cracked allowing eight earned runs before giving way to the bullpen.

There’s no doubt that this team has improved from 2011. The offensive attitude and numbers clearly lead the last Mike Anderson squad. Will Bolt and Darin Erstad’s philosophies have made a huge impact. However, Nebraska still has evident weaknesses.

From the aforementioned vulnerability to good pitchers and shaky-at-times defense, the Huskers’ pitching staff still isn’t where it needs to be. After years of Rob Childress-coached pitchers, it’s a hard realization.

Ted Silva may be one of the best pitching coaches in the country, but between the current issues with the staff, and philosophy changes in pitching to contact, the Big Red’s bullpen would not take Nebraska beyond an NCAA Regional at this point.

Despite the structural issues, the two-game dominance provided Nebraska with something it hadn’t claimed since 2008 – its first conference-starting series victory.

No Big Ten series resulted in a sweep. The Huskers are now tied for first in the conference standings, keeping pace with the Boilermaker squad from West Lafayette, Indiana.

The three-game tilt with Illinois also marked the end of a hellish grind for Erstad’s squad. The Huskers will now not play more than four games a week, allowing for the rotation and bullpen to settle into a more distinct rhythm.

The Huskers conclude their 17-game home stand on Tuesday against Kansas State. This game is vital to building Nebraska’s RPI resume before traveling to Evanston to take on Big Ten bottom-dweller Northwestern.

B-HACKS

- Illinois scored in the top of the first inning in all three games. Despite the percentages being in the team that scores first’s favor, Nebraska bucked the odds and continued to play well from behind.

- Zach Hirsch didn’t face more than five batters each inning, and picked off two runners. He faced the minimum in four innings.

- Designated hitter Kash Kalkowski was 5-for-12 on the weekend with five RBIs.

- Freshman Pat Kelly leads the team in hitting with a .419 average, but has been a liability in the infield with a .860 fielding percentage.

Nebraska inserted him in the outfield on Saturday, but he returned to second base on Sunday and played an error-free game.

- Three Huskers are batting over .400, Pat Kelly, Josh Scheffert (.409), and Michael Pritchard (.400). Nine Huskers are batting over .300.

- The team as a whole is hitting .329. Opponents have hit .286.

- Starting pitching continues to be an area of inconsistency. The three weekend starters for Nebraska, Tom Lemke, Zach Hirsch and Jon Keller, all have ERAs over 4.00, with Keller and Hirsch being over 4.60.

- The starters are helping to drag the team ERA to a 4.10. Fortunately for Nebraska, the offense has ballooned its opposition’s ERA to 7.81.

- Perhaps more importantly, Nebraska’s team WHIP is at a 1.50. While this number may be higher than previous years due to Nebraska’s new pitching-to-contact philosophy, it’s still an indicator of teams constantly putting more than one man on base against Husker pitching.

- Husker Nation has returned in force to Haymarket Park. Favorable weather and the opening of conference play drew more than 5,000 fans to each game, with a total attendance of 15,697 over the course of the weekend.

- It will be fascinating to compare Nebraska’s final home attendance versus that of all of the other Big Ten schools at the end of the season.

It’s not a question of if Nebraska’s attendance will dwarf their conference mates’ numbers, but of how many schools must combine their audiences to match Haymarket’s population.

- At this point last season, the Husker baseball team was 17-9 following a Big 12 conference series loss. The Huskers had won a series against No. 5 UCLA at Haymarket Park, but ultimately struggled against the conference slate.

- This season, Nebraska is 17-9 following their first Big Ten conference series win. The Huskers tied in a series vs. No. 18 California at Haymarket Park, and the remainder of the schedule is much more favorable than last year’s.

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