Bullpen bails out U in pitching-poor Classic

Jim Schortemeyer

With pitchers Dan McGrath and Ben Birk out with injuries, there’s little question that the Minnesota baseball team is short on arms.
But help is on the way. Junior Kelly Werner made his return to the starting rotation on Friday, and the early returns are promising.
Werner struggled early but coasted through the middle innings against Washington State in the first game of the Hormel Classic at the Metrodome. He got the hook in the sixth inning with two runners on base. The runners later scored and Werner was charged with two earned runs in his five and one-third innings of work.
“For my first start, it felt pretty good. I threw strikes, kept the ball low and let the defense do the work,” Werner said. “But I got a little tired there in the sixth.”
With Werner back, the Gophers still have just two of their four regular starters in the rotation. The Gophers aren’t exactly complaining but they know they didn’t have their best pitching this weekend.
“We would have been better off with (Brad) Pautz starting Friday, and then McGrath and Birk,” coach John Anderson said. “We’d have been a better team.”
With a set of home games with Northern Illinois and Oregon State on the horizon, Minnesota has exactly what it needs — time to get better before the Big Ten season begins. McGrath is expected to return next weekend against Northern Illinois.
But there won’t be enough time for Birk. The senior has a nerve problem in his throwing arm that continues to cause him pain.
“It’s so frustrating because there’s no rehabilitating it. I can’t even pick up a ball. I just have to rest it,” Birk said.
Birk also said he’s talked with trainers who say he’ll be back in a month — just in time for the second weekend of the Big Ten season.
“It seems about a year away right now. It’s just frustrating to have to sit, but it’s what I have to do,” Birk said.
Birk and McGrath’s absence probably led to earlier calls to the bullpen for Minnesota. Surprisingly, the pitching wasn’t the Gophers’ problem. Errors led to more Minnesota problems than the so-so pitching.
Minnesota jumped out to a 5-0 lead against Washington State on Friday, but the game slowly slid away from the Gophers. With a 5-3 lead in the eighth, the Cougars put runners on second and third thanks to two Minnesota errors.
A wild pitch and a sacrifice fly later, Washington State tied the game at 5-5.
Two innings later, the Cougars’ scored another unearned run. With the bases loaded and two outs, Minnesota pitcher Frank Wagner tossed a second wild pitch, which allowed the runners to move up a base.
Washington State held on to win 6-5. Of the Cougars’ six runs, three were earned, and Minnesota had four errors in the game.
But Wagner apparently learned from the experience and pitched a very different game on Sunday. Wagner pitched five innings in relief, allowing just four hits and one unearned run.
“Our bullpen is young and needs experience,” Birk said. “It’s good in the long run because it helps them develop, but for now it’s hard. But we’ve all been there.”