Minnesota will be without the services of junior pitcher Ben Birk for the rest of the season, but the Gophers baseball team has had plenty of time to prepare for his absence. An inflamed ulnar nerve in Birk’s throwing elbow has kept the pitching staff’s ace shelved since the start of the season.
Birk has been throwing, but it was decided that more time was needed to allow the uncommon injury to heal. And with the end of the regular season a little more than a month away, the preseason pick for Big Ten Pitcher of the Year opted for a medical redshirt.
“He’s throwing right now, but we want to have six to eight weeks to really determine if this nerve thing is going to heal and not be a problem,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “If it’s not healed within six to eight weeks then we’ll probably have to do surgery and relocate that nerve.”
But surgery is definitely a route the Gophers hope to avoid.
“Anytime you cut somebody open, there’s a 50 percent chance that they’ll pitch again,” Anderson said.
Minnesota’s starting rotation has rallied in Birk’s absence. The Gophers are 24-7 overall and have won their last eight games, including a four-game sweep at Iowa over the weekend.
Senior Brad Pautz has been the leader. The right-hander has thrown two complete-game Big Ten wins in as many appearances. Junior college transfer Chadd Clarey secured the fourth spot after winning his first two conference games.
Despite their successes, however, the Gophers will miss Birk’s .34 ERA and 4-0 Big Ten record from a year ago.
“We just don’t want to rush him and hurry it up here,” Anderson said. “We want to make sure when he does take the mound he’s competitive.”
Quinlan earns league honor
For the second time this season, a Minnesota player was selected as Big Ten Player of the Week. Senior Robb Quinlan got the nod this time for his impressive offensive stats during the Gophers’ 5-0 week.
Minnesota’s first baseman went 14-for-21 with 10 RBIs. Quinlan also broke former Gopher Brent Gates’ single-season doubles (61) record and Mark Merila’s (1991-94) single-season RBIs record (179) while tying Tom Steinbach’s (1980-83) season home run record (45).
“He started playing his freshman year and has been a consistent performer throughout his career. That’s why he’s setting records,” Anderson said. “He never approached the game to set records. He set records because he is a good player.”
Quinlan’s success at the plate factored into the team’s flawless record. Minnesota picked up a mid-week victory over Northern Iowa and swept Iowa for the third consecutive season.Around the horn
ù Minnesota cracked the Associated Press baseball Top 25 rankings this week. The Gophers are ranked 21st, their highest ranking since they were ranked 18th heading into the 1994 NCAA tournament.
ù After their second Big Ten series, the Gophers have climbed into a tie for first place in the conference standings with Ohio State. Both programs are 7-1 in the Big Ten.
ù The Gophers begin action at Siebert Field this week facing a nonconference opponent. Minnesota is scheduled to play Northern Iowa on Wednesday, a team they beat on the road last week by a score of 6-5.