U baseball’s bullpen gets burned by sun

by Tim Klobuchar

COLUMBUS, Ohio — As Minnesota’s Ted Zrust prepared to pitch to Ohio State’s Jason Driscoll with the Gophers’ tenuous last-inning lead in peril on Saturday, the sun slipped from behind the clouds, illuminating the entire field at Bill Davis Stadium.
Was this a symbolic ray of hope for the snake-bitten Gophers, losers of their last four games, three of them by one run, including a 7-6 loss to the Buckeyes in the first game of the doubleheader Saturday? Hardly.
The Gophers only had to think back to Friday, when two fly balls off the bat of Driscoll were lost in the sun by Minnesota outfielders, contributing to a wrenching 11-10 loss, to realize the gloomy skies they had played under all season were preferable to sunshine.
Rarely does the sun coming out represent a bad omen, but then again, this hadn’t been a normal game. Minnesota and Ohio State were engaged in a pitching duel, of all things, after two slugfests. And the effective pitchers for the Gophers came out of the bullpen that had been depleted on Friday.
Sophomore lefty Adam Williams (1-2, 4.98 earned run average) pitched four and one-third superb shutout innings in relief of starter Tony Felling. And when he was gassed, he gave way to the equally weary Zrust, who had pitched four and two-thirds innings on Friday.
But considering that all recent close games eventually seemed to favor the opposition, the outcome seemed a foregone conclusion for Minnesota — the Buckeyes, with five comebacks in their last at-bat this year in the Big Ten, would find a way to win, and the seemingly cursed Gophers would find a way to lose.
Which is why, when Driscoll lofted a high fly to left field toward Mark Groebner, playing his first inning in the field of the series, the Gophers feared the worst and the inevitable. They were ahead 3-2 in the seventh and final inning, but Ohio State had runners on first and second with two outs.
On Friday the Buckeyes had scored the tying run with two outs in the ninth inning when Gophers right-fielder Craig Selander lost a fly ball in the sun and went on to win in the 10th. Was it destined to happen again?
Groebner got turned around but then drifted back to medium-deep left field, put his glove up and, with two hands, caught the ball to save the 3-2 victory and Minnesota’s hopes of a Big Ten regular season title.
“You’re not as sure as you usually are,” said Zrust, who was pitching Friday when Driscoll hit his lethal ninth-inning fly ball. “I watched this one all the way to his glove.”
The bullpen is the last line of defense for a pitching staff, and on Saturday, Williams and Zrust were the last two soldiers guarding the Gophers from another crippling loss. Starter Mike Diebolt’s short outing on Friday necessitated using Zrust and Jason Dobis for long innings. Minnesota had other pitchers to use from the pen on Saturday, but none whom Coach John Anderson and pitching coach Mike Dee trusted enough in a must-win situation.
Williams entered the game in the bottom of the third with his team trailing 2-0 and retired the first three batters he faced. He struck out seven and allowed just three hits in his stint, keeping the potent Buckeyes lineup in check with his slider and cut fastball. He held Ohio State long enough for Minnesota’s offense to catch up.
“It was just a matter of throwing strikes and hitting my spots,” Williams said, “and just letting them hit it.”
Williams sat out last season as a Proposition 48 student, which means he had yet to fulfill his freshman eligibility requirements. However, Dee thinks Williams’ attitude compensates for his inexperience.
“Adam likes to compete. He’s been like that his whole life,” Dee said. “He thoroughly enjoys those moments. It really doesn’t make me nervous when he’s in there in those situations. He loves that stuff.”
The Gophers tied the game with solo homers by Robb Quinlan and Eric Welter and took the lead in the seventh on an RBI single by Phil McDermott. Williams struck out Matt Middleton to start the seventh, then walked Mike Kremblas. Enter Zrust. He needed only to get two batters out, but considering the disparate fortunes of the Gophers and Buckeyes in close games and Zrust’s tired right arm, it was nearly a monumental task.
“I was a little bit nervous bringing him in,” Dee said. “But we really needed a win, and even if Teddy’s not at 100 percent, he gives us our best chance to win.”
Zrust got pinch hitter Dan Zabloudil to ground into a fielder’s choice, walked Tom Durant, then got Driscoll to end the game.
“It’s a little sore,” said a smiling Zrust of his right arm after the game. “There’s some shooting pains right now.”
But the temporary pain is worth it to Zrust, who helped the Gophers to their most important win of the season.
“It was a must-win, not only for the Big Ten title, but for the team,” he said. “They’re a good team and we’ve had them twice, and they beat us. But we got this one.”
The unproven sophomore left-hander and the sore-armed, submarine-style right-hander might seem unlikely saviors, but they are precisely the two who ensured that the sun will come out tomorrow for Minnesota.