CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — M&M’s were pulled from the shelves during the 1980s because of the poisonous Red 26 dye they contained. The Gophers’ Ben Birk was pulled from the starting pitching rotation earlier this season because of a rotator cuff inflammation.
But unlike the red M&M’s, Birk’s comeback was as lethal as ever.
Minnesota’s No. 1 pitcher took the mound for the first time in nearly a month during game one of Saturday’s doubleheader against Illinois after starter Brad Pautz was shelled by the Illini. The recovering sophomore threw like a veteran pitcher.
Birk came out of the pen in the most unfavorable position: third inning, two outs, bases loaded and lead-off batter Dusty Rhodes at the plate. But Birk continued where he left off nearly a month ago, as Rhodes grounded out.
From the first batter he faced, pitches seemed automatic for Birk. The 6-foot-5-inch southpaw retired the first six hitters he faced, which happened to be the first six batters of Illinois’ lineup. Sixty-eight pitches later, Birk had surrendered only three hits and no runs while striking out five and walking one.
“He’s usually a strikeout pitcher,” catcher Jeremy Negen said. “He did a real good job of getting ahead in the count.”
Birk entered the game when the Gophers faced a three-run deficit, but revitalized the team by pitching four innings of shutout baseball before being pulled when the game went into extra innings. Birk picked up the win when Robb Quinlan hit a key two-run triple to help the team win the game 10-6.
After the win, Birk said he had nothing to complain about.
“My arm felt pretty good, actually,” Birk said. “I was surprised that I was able to pitch well. (Pitching coach Mike Dee) wanted me to get out there and get my feet wet. That was the most important thing.”
Birk will have an opportunity to get his feet even wetter next weekend when the Gophers host Indiana, although which game Birk will throw has yet to be decided. The decision will be based on the progress of his injury.
“The key now is to see how he recovers, to make sure he doesn’t have any pain again,” coach John Anderson said. “We probably won’t know anything for three or four days about exactly how he’s going to come back.”
Because of the injury he suffered while throwing an excess number of curveballs in practice, Birk was on a pitch count of about 60. Since he retired a majority of the Illini hitters early in the count, Birk was on the mound for four complete innings.
Following the game Birk said his arm was sore, but strengthening exercises are improving his stamina.
“I’m not back to where I used to be,” Birk said.
Negen was behind the plate for Birk’s return and said the sophomore threw well in his first post-injury appearance. The catcher added that Birk’s velocity was also back.
But regardless of his velocity, Negen was satisfied to have Birk back on the mound staring down opposing batters.
“It was really nice to see Ben throw well. He’s a really good pitcher,” Negen said. “It’s really good to have him back, that’s for sure.”
However, no one was anticipating Birk’s return more than Birk himself.
“I was anxious,” he said. “It had just been so long, and I’d never been injured for a long period of time before. During my injury I guess I realized how much I really like to play the game and to compete.”