Illinois Fighting Illini (10-7) at Nebraska Cornhuskers (11-7-1)
Location: Haymarket Park, Lincoln, NE
Date: March 24-26
Times (all CT): March 24: 6:05 p.m.; March 25: 2:02 p.m.; March 26: 1:05 p.m.
Head Coach(s): Dan Hartleb (18th season) and Will Bolt (4th season)
TV/Stream: Friday — B1G+; Saturday — Nebraska Public Media and B1G+; Sunday — B1G+
Radio: Huskers Radio Network, Huskers.com, Huskers App
There are two big stories as the Nebraska Cornhuskers open a three-game series tonight against the visiting Illinois Illini baseball team. First off, it is the Big Ten opener for both teams, which brings a new level of excitement and intensity to the season.
Perhaps overshadowing that just a bit for the Cornhusker faithful will be the long overdue ceremony prior to the first pitch when three Nebraska greats will have their jerseys officially retired. All-Americans Darin Erstad, Shane Komine, and Alex Gordan will see their jerseys hung to honor their incredible contributions to Nebraska baseball. The on-field ceremony will start at 5:48 p.m. and all three will throw a ceremonial first pitch to kick off the Big Ten season.
Nebraska comes into the game on a two-game losing streak after dropping the final game in a crazy three game series in Manhattan, Kansas to Nicholls and then suffering a frustrating wild pitch walk-off to rival Creighton on Tuesday in Omaha. Illinois comes to Lincoln having just taken two of three from Southern Illinois on the weekend and topping Bradley on Tuesday.
The weekends have been good for the Cornhuskers since their first one in San Diego, as is reflected by the records of their top two starters, Emmett Olson, sporting a 3-1 record and a 3.34 ERA and Jace Kominska without a blemish and four wins, along with a 1.86 ERA.
The two of them have consistently pitched into the sixth inning as of late, taking pressure off the unpredictable Big Red bullpen. While the offense has cooled just a little bit, shortstop Brice Matthews continues to light it up at the top of the order and was Nebraska’s second Big Ten Player of the Week in a row.
Game 1: LHP Emmett Olson (3-1, 3.34 ERA) vs. RHP Riley Gowens (1-0, 4.33 ERA)
Game 2: RHP Jace Kaminska (4-0, 1.86 ERA) vs. RHP Julius Sanchez (0-2, 8.31 ERA)
Game 3: TBD vs. RHP Jack Wenninger (2-1, 5.03 ERA)
Emmett Olson has taken the hill every Friday since the start of the season and has rewarded the team with increasingly strong outings each week, including a complete game (7 innings) victory against Nicholls last week, in which he gave up one run on five hits along with seven strikeouts. The lefty from Des Plaines, Illinois is averaging a little over one strikeout per inning and is holding opponents to a .192 batting average. This is the guy you want out there on Friday night.
Jace Kominska has been sterling on Saturdays, though he did pitch one day short on rest last week when he threw the second game of the Friday doubleheader. The junior transfer from Wichita State has not surrendered an earned run in his last 18.2 innings, and in fact has only allowed just one run, which came as the result of a passed ball against Nicholls. He is holding opponents to a .204 average in 29 innings of duty.
The Sunday starter is to be determined, but most likely will not be Jackson Brockett, who started last week on Thursday against Nicholls and then took the hill to start on Tuesday against Creighton. While he was limited in innings in both starts, Will Bolt and Jeff Christy will most likely go with another arm. Perhaps freshman Caleb Clark will be given another opportunity, or Michael Garza, who had a nice start against Omaha.
Nebraska will most likely have a number of left-hander batters in the lineup all weekend as the Illini have announced that they are starting a trio of right-handed pitchers. Riley Gowens will face off against Olsen tonight, coming off a strong performance last week against Southern Illinois. He went eight full innings, striking out ten and giving up no walks.
On Saturday, freshman Julius Sanchez will make his fourth start of the season. The rookie has started four games and has had the normal consistency issues one would expect from a first-year player at the D1 level. Illinois’ hottest pitcher will start the Sunday game, though he did suffer his first loss of the season a week ago to the visiting Southern Illinois Salukis. In the loss, Jack Wenninger had 10 strikeouts in 5.1 innings.
Illinois Scouting Report
Illinois is off to a 10-7 start through the non-conference part of the season. Like Nebraska they have played quality competition on the road, including two games against #6 Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, NC and a three-game series vs. #18 Southern Mississippi on their home field in Hattiesburg. While they lost two against the Demon Deacons, they did take two of three from Southern Miss. They also took two of three from Sam Houston and split with Coastal Carolina, both teams that have played in regionals in recent years.
Head coach Dan Hartleb, with 517 wins as the skipper for the Orange and Blue, is just two wins shy of taking over the number one spot as the winningest coach in program history. One of the deans of Big Ten baseball has consistently put solid teams on the field that play solid, fundamental baseball.
Infielder Branden Comia is a tough out and is current on a 57 game on-base streak. Husker fans will remember another Illini hitter, Cam McDonald, who last year had an on-base streak of 63 games. Drake Westcott has three home runs in the last three games and 17 RBI on the season. Catcher Camden Janik has reached base safely in all 17 games this season.
Illinois returns three All-Big Ten selections with second team members Branden Comia and Cam McDonald, along with third team member Danny Doligale. Pre-season honors have been given to pitchers Jack Crowder and Riley Gowens, along with McDonald.
Illinois has a 15-13 advantage all-time over Nebraska, thought the Cornhuskers have won seven of 12 at Hawks Field since joining the Big Ten. In last year’s series in Champaign, the two teams split games one and two before Illinois walked-off the Cornhuskers in game three in the bottom of the ninth, resulting in an incredibly frustrating loss on a rainy day that consisted of two rain delays that totaled four hours and 53 minutes. Characteristic of this match-up has been closely fought games of exciting baseball. The teams are 3-3 in the last two series, and this is the first time that Illinois has played in Lincoln since 2019.
Husker Notes from the Past Week
Garrett Anglim has not yet returned from the injury he suffered earlier in the season. Whether he makes an appearance or not this weekend is still up in the air, though he has been taking batting practice.
Nebraska is one of two teams in the nation with two everyday starters hitting .400 or better. Max Anderson is hitting .449 with nine doubles, two triples, and three home runs. Brice Matthews is not far behind with a .414 average and seven doubles, a triple, and six home runs.
Brice Matthews has reached base in 22 consecutive games, while Josh Caron has done the same for 19 straight games.
The Nebraska offense ranks in the top 30 nationally in six offense categories: batting average, doubles, doubles per game, on-base percentage, scoring, and slugging percentage.