A three-run walk-off home run by Pat Kelly in the bottom of the 10th inning propelled the No. 26 Nebraska baseball team (37-18, 18-6 Big Ten) to a 7-4 victory over the Illinois Fighting Illini (31-19, 17-7 Big Ten) in front a season-high crowd of 6,354 on Senior Day. The series win for the Huskers locked NU into the No. 2 seed at next week’s Big Ten Tournament, where they will meet the Ohio State Buckeyes on Wednesday, May 21, at 1:05 p.m.
The crowd of 6,354 fans at Hawks Field for the regular-season finale was the most for a home game since 2008, when the Huskers had 8,648 fans in attendance for their game against UC Irvine in the NCAA Tournament. It was the largest crowd for a regular-season home game since May 11, 2008, when 7,653 watched the Huskers play Texas A&M.
With the game tied 4-4 in the bottom of the 10th, freshman Ryan Boldt nearly ended the game with a deep fly to right-center field, but Casey Fletcher was able to haul in the catch and hang onto the ball after colliding with center fielder Will Krug. Jake Placzek then worked a base on balls off Illini reliever Tyler Jay and Michael Pritchard notched his 243rd career hit with a single up the middle. With the winning run in scoring position at second base, Kelly tattooed a 1-1 offering from Jay that landed behind the berm seating in left field. It was Kelly’s fourth homer of the season and the first walk-off homer by a Husker since Tanner Lubach hit one in the 2013 Big Ten Tournament against Indiana.
The come-from-behind victory marked the 12th time this season that the Huskers have earned the win after trailing or tied through six innings.
Kelly scored twice on the day while going 3-for-5 in the contest, including the decisive big fly to end the game in extras. Pritchard also amassed a three-hit outing on his Senior Day, including his 43rd career double, and his 243 career hits rank 10th all-time at Nebraska. Austin Darby notched his second home run of the series in the fourth inning after also homering in the series opener. The Huskers hit five home runs in the series, the most in a series by the Huskers since they hit five at home against Minnesota in 2012.
Nebraska’s bullpen gave NU’s offense a chance down the stretch, as Bob Greco, Zach Hirsch and Josh Roeder combined to throw 6.0 innings of scoreless relief. The trio allowed four hits and struck out six, including a career-high four from Greco.
Trailing 4-2 in the bottom of the sixth, the Huskers evened the score with a run on two hits. Lubach put the Huskers within one when he delivered a two-out RBI single, setting the stage for Ben Miller to tie the game with runners on the corners. Jay took the mound in relief of Illinois starter John Kravetz and worked a 2-2 count to Miller. Head Coach Darin Erstad took a gamble and signaled for Darby to steal home, Jay was caught off guard by the play and balked, allowing Darby to coast home for the game-tying run. Miller then had a shot to put the Huskers ahead with Lubach on second, but Jay ended the frame with a strikeout.
The Huskers had to rally after Illinois jumped out to a 3-0 lead through three innings. Ryne Roper pushed Illinois’ lead to 2-0 in the second with a homer and Adam Walton led off the third with a triple and later scored to make it a 3-0 contest.
Nebraska got on the board in the bottom of the third when Placzek worked a one-out walk and moved into scoring position on a wild pitch. Pritchard stepped up and ripped a double to the gap in right center, cutting Illinois’ lead to 3-1.
The Illini got a run back in the fifth and the Huskers evened the score at 4-4 in the sixth. Neither team scored over the next three innings, before Kelly ended the 2014 regular-season on a high note with his first career walk-off homer.