Gophers blow birth to Big Tens

Tim Klobuchar

The final out of the Gophers’ 17-8 win against Northwestern on Sunday had been recorded, giving Minnesota three wins in the four-game series. As their teammates emptied from the dugout to the field, Gophers seniors Bob Keeney and Eric Welter converged between their second base and first base positions and embraced.
Anyone who looked at the Big Ten standings before the series began might have predicted that the Gophers would be hugging in rejoice — a Minnesota sweep would’ve put the Gophers in the Big Ten postseason tournament.
But anyone who looked at a schedule could also see that Sunday’s game was Minnesota’s last game at Siebert Field this season and the final regular season game of the year. Then, because of the Gophers’ loss to the Wildcats on Friday night, Sunday quickly transformed into the last Gophers game of any kind this year.
The hug that Welter and Keeney shared became not one of celebration but of ceremony — the last time the teammates, roommates and catch-playing partners would ever walk on a baseball field for the Gophers.
Friday’s 7-5 defeat was the final blow to Minnesota’s tournament hopes, one of many close losses that ultimately doomed the Gophers’ chances of making the tourney, which normally had hardly been given a passing thought. This is the second straight year they’ve missed the tournament but only the third time in John Anderson’s 16 years as head coach.
The only good that came out of the loss was that it allowed the Gophers to savor the final moments of the season and, in the case of the 11 Minnesota seniors, their careers.
“There’s a lot of emotions you go through,” Welter said. “It started with disappointment when we lost Friday. But you try to soak it up these last few days. It’s nice to go out on a win. That’s a good feeling.”
The win gave Minnesota (30-24 overall, 15-10 in the Big Ten, fifth place), its 14th straight 30-victory season. Northwestern finished ninth at 19-35, 9-19.
Anderson worked all 11 seniors into Sunday’s game, except for pitcher Ted Zrust, who pitched in two other games in the series. Pitcher Tony Felling appeared not on the mound, but at the plate. He pinch-hit in the eighth and got an infield single.
It was the last of a season-high 26 hits for the Gophers, who got four each from Keeney, fellow senior Bryan Guse and sophomore Robb Quinlan. Keeney also drove in five runs.
Senior left-hander Mike Diebolt broke the 24-year-old Gophers record for strikeouts in a season, which was held by future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. Diebolt struck out his fifth batter of the game, and 110th of the year, in the eighth inning.
Immediately after the milestone whiff, Diebolt gave way to senior righty Justin Pederson, who shut down the Wildcats in the last inning and two-thirds.
Their performances Sunday allowed Diebolt and Pederson to remember fondly their final appearances as Gophers. Had they never pitched after Friday, that wouldn’t have been the case.
Pederson gave up five runs and four walks in just three and two-thirds innings before being lifted with Minnesota trailing 5-2 in Friday’s game. It was the last of a series of disappointing starts for the Chippewa Falls, Wis., native this year. After a solid first three years, Pederson slumped to a 4-6 record this season, with a 6.22 earned run average.
“He told me (after the game), ‘I choked.’ Those were his words,” Anderson said.
Zrust came on and shut out Northwestern for four innings, while the Gophers closed the gap to 5-4. Diebolt relieved Zrust in the eighth and retired the first two batters in the ninth before walking Brian Baron. Next up was Patrick Thompson, a freshman who had homered earlier in the game.
Thompson, who had one home run on the season coming into the game, crushed a mammoth home run to dead center field 435 feet away, increasing the lead to 7-4.
The Gophers rallied in their half of the ninth for one run, but John Seaman struck out Quinlan to end the game. The loss dropped Minnesota’s record in games decided by one or two runs to 7-13.
“That game mirrored our season,” Anderson said. “They got timely hits, and we didn’t, and we couldn’t throw strikes (eight walks in the game). We have six one-run losses. That’s our whole season.”
Minnesota still had an outside shot to make the tournament despite the loss. Michigan, which beat Ohio State on Friday, had to win the last three games of the series, and the Gophers had to win their last three. But in the top of the first inning of the first game of a doubleheader Saturday, the word came that Michigan had lost.
The Gophers then went out and did what they had struggled to do all year. With their elimination official, they won two one-run games, 6-5 and 4-3.
“It’s tough,” Guse said after the doubleheader sweep Saturday. “We lost three games because of weather, and the things we could control, we didn’t. We had enough talent, but we lost six one-run games. (Friday) night’s game wasn’t the one that kept us out of the tournament.”

SUNDAY’S SUMMARY
NU 000 034 010 — 8 9 2
Gophers 410 513 03x — 17 26 4
NU — Koplove, Padgett (4), Seaman (6), Dodd (8) and Franzese; UM — Diebolt, Pederson (8) and Guse. W — Diebolt, 7-4. L — Koplove, 2-6. HRs — NU, DiMaggio (3); UM, Keeney (7). T — 2:55. A — 561.

Gophers hitting stats (4 games)
AB R H RBI
Stein 18 5 3 1
Welter 16 4 9 2
Quinlan 18 6 8 5
Selander 12 3 4 2
Guse 13 5 8 2
Keeney 18 3 9 7
McDermott 10 3 4 4
Scanlon 11 0 2 2
Devore 13 1 2 1
Groebner 3 2 2 2
Griffin 3 0 1 1
Beers 2 0 1 0
Felling 1 0 1 0
Totals 138 32 54 29