Despite loss to Illinois, Huskers still have faint chance at Big Ten baseball tournament

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Nebraska ran into four double plays and squandered advantages in hits and errors while falling to Illinois 5-2 on Thursday evening in a loss that all but eliminates the baseball team from postseason contention.

In order to advance to the eight-team Big Ten tournament in Omaha next week, the Huskers must beat the Illini in the final two games and have both Maryland and Michigan State drop their final two. Any other outcome will ensure the Huskers (23-27, 7-13 Big Ten) will finish with a sub-.500 record for the fifth time in 42 years and first since 2013.

“We’re just going to keep going, getting ready to play baseball, and respect the game and go out there and play with a lot of pride,” Nebraska coach Darin Erstad said during his postgame radio interview. “Things aren’t going our way, but that doesn’t change the fact of how you go about your business.”

NU junior starting pitcher Matt Waldron pitched well outside of a pair of home runs — his 12th and 13th allowed in 69⅔ innings this spring — that gave the Illini the lead for good. The offense, meanwhile, stranded 10 baserunners and went just 1 for 10 with men in scoring position. NU lost despite posting more hits (10-8) and fewer errors (0-2).

Illinois (30-17, 14-8) tied the game 2-2 in the bottom of the first on a two-run homer from Ben Troike, then went ahead on a solo blast by Michael Massey to lead off the fourth. A pair of RBI doubles by Doran Turchin and Jack Yalowitz off reliever Mike Waldron in the sixth capped the scoring.

The hosts — who have now won 22 of 23 games this spring when ahead after four innings — received five scoreless frames from their bullpen after starter Cyrillo Watson went four.

“Once they get the lead and they can line up and play matchup baseball, it can be very difficult,” Erstad said. “They have good pieces in the ‘pen and that’s why it’s so important, especially the first game of a series, to get the lead so you can set your stuff up. But we weren’t able to do that.”

Nebraska had more than its share of chances to score against a team that started the day fifth in the Big Ten standings. It loaded the bases with no outs in the first, but scored just a pair on a Luke Roskam RBI hit and Jaxon Hallmark fielder’s choice before grounding into a double play. In the third, two runners on with one away netted no runs.

A strikeout and caught-stealing combination wiped out a threat in the fourth. And with Huskers at the corners in the fifth and one out, an Angelo Altavilla would-be sacrifice fly to deep right — that should have tied the game 3-3 — produced nothing when Luke Roskam was tagged out trying to advance a base before the run scored.

“Had a couple opportunities and over-aggressive baserunning in the wrong situation,” Erstad said. “Yeah, it wasn’t our night.”

In a matchup of first basemen contending for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, Illinois junior Bren Spillane finished with a single in four at-bats while NU’s Scott Schreiber went 2 for 4 (two singles) with a walk.

The Huskers return to action Friday at 6 p.m. before their regular-season finale Saturday at 3 p.m.

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