Zrust has nightmare during dream season

Tim Klobuchar

Considering the Gophers’ .344 team batting average in Big Ten games going into the weekend, the superb job Illinois pitching did (allowing just 12 runs and 25 hits) in its four-game sweep was surprising, to say the least.
But just as unexpected for Minnesota were the struggles of Ted Zrust. The senior right-handed relief ace has had a tremendous year with four saves, three wins and a 2.29 earned run average entering the series. So it was jarring for him to fail with the game on the line.
With the Gophers ahead 3-2 in the eighth inning of the series opener on Friday, Zrust came on with one out and a runner on second. He retired the first batter he faced, but the next hitter, the left-handed Dan O’Neill, hit a home run to right center to give the Illini the lead. That was the first homer Zrust surrendered all season.
After Matt Scanlon tied the game for the Gophers in the bottom of the eighth with an RBI single, number nine hitter D.J. Svihlik led off the Illinois ninth with another homer to right center. That was the game-winner.
It was the first blown save of the year for Zrust, a fact to which Gophers coach John Anderson was very sensitive.
“He’s human,” Anderson said. “He’s pitched well all year for us, and even the best pitchers have days like that. You have to give them credit — they hit his mistakes. You can’t blame Teddy. He’s been good all year, and that happens sometimes.”
Though Zrust hasn’t had much practice this year dealing with blown saves, he knew what was necessary to keep it from happening again.
“It’s a tough thing to describe,” Zrust said after the game. “But I just have to be ready for the next one, because I’ll probably be out there tomorrow.”
Zrust’s prediction was right — unfortunately O’Neill was lurking there, too.
With the score tied at three in the seventh (and last) inning in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, Zrust came into the game with two outs and a runner on first.
Illinois coach Itch Jones promptly pinch-hit O’Neill for the right-handed T.J. Jackson. The runner, Aaron Nieckula, stole second, and scored when O’Neill reached for a pitch and dumped a bloop single into shallow left field. A Minnesota error later in the inning led to an unearned run in the 5-3 Illini victory.
Pederson back to form
Lost in the late-inning heroics on Friday was the performance of Gophers senior pitcher Justin Pederson.
The right-hander came into the season with a career 17-8 record and 4.32 ERA. He got off to a strong start this year, but going into Friday’s game he was just 3-5 with a 6.31 ERA.
But with several scouts in the stands pointing radar guns at both him and Illinois starter Brett Weber, Pederson had his best start during the Big Ten season. He pitched seven and one-third innings, giving up six hits and five walks while striking out seven before leaving with a 3-2 lead.
Thank you
That’s what the Gophers should be saying to traditional Big Ten whipping boys Michigan State and Northwestern. The Spartans took three of four games from Indiana last weekend, and the Wildcats did the same to Penn State.
Even with series splits, both the Hoosiers and Lions would have jumped in front of Minnesota, putting the Gophers in seventh. Instead, Penn State (8-10) and Indiana (7-9) remain behind the 8-9, fifth-place Gophers. The top four teams make the post-season conference tournament.
As disappointing as this weekend was for them, the Gophers’ drop from third place could’ve been even more precipitous were it not for the Spartans and the Wildcats, who are tied for eighth place.
Hit & Run
ù The Gophers started 5-0 in the Big Ten. They are 3-9 since.
ù Minnesota’s batting average in Big Ten games fell from .344 to .314 this weekend. The Gophers scored 12 runs in the series — a total they have reached in one game eight times this season.
ù Sophomore Robb Quinlan has a nine-game hitting streak. He also has 23 doubles on the season, one away from tying the single-season school record held by three players.