Seniors get chance to savor last game

Tim Klobuchar

The Gophers baseball team’s elimination from the Big Ten baseball tournament became all but official after its 7-5 loss to Northwestern on Friday in the series opener.
That left the last three games of the series for the 11 Minnesota seniors to relish their final moments as Gophers, and for many, as competitive baseball players.
Virtually all of them enjoyed some success on Sunday, as the Gophers bludgeoned the Wildcats 17-8 while drilling a season-high 26 hits.
One senior went out with a record. Mike Diebolt notched his school-record 110th strikeout of the season, breaking Dave Winfield’s 24-year-old mark.
Another went out with an honor: Ted Zrust was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week for his relief work this weekend.
The five seniors who had been in the starting line-up all year when healthy (Troy Stein, Eric Welter, Bryan Guse, Bob Keeney and Phil McDermott) ended their college careers with an avalanche of hits, going a combined 14-for-25 with 10 RBIs on Sunday.
Ben Griffin, who started most of the year at first base until going part-time near the end of the season, went 1-for-2 in relief of Ryan Beers, one of the seniors who finished in a way he might not have envisioned.
Beers got just his third start of the season and had one hit, a single in the third inning, in two at-bats.
“In the past, (Gophers coach John Anderson has) made sure that all the seniors get in the last game,” Beers said with a huge smile on his face. “So I thought that maybe there was a shot (that I’d start). The way this game went, that was the perfect way to go out.”
Tony Felling, billed as the best hitting pitcher on the team over the public address system in the pre-game senior ceremony, got a chance to live up to the hype in the eighth inning when he pinch-hit for McDermott with the score 17-8.
“When I got up there I was worried about the first pitch,” Felling said. “I figured they might be thinking we were making a mockery of the game, and they were going to throw at me. After that I told myself, if it’s over the plate I’m swinging.”
Felling, a left-handed hitter, ripped the second pitch up the middle, and the ball ricocheted off the glove of pitcher John Seaman for an infield hit.
Finally, someone who needed a good performance to help alleviate the memories of several bad ones got his chance. Justin Pederson, who suffered through a lackluster senior season after showing great promise in his first three years, shut out Northwestern in the last 1 2/3 innings.
He struck out two, ending his career with 240, which is second-best in school history. He finished just three strikeouts behind Paul Giel.
Five of the 11 seniors (Stein, Beers, Welter, Keeney and Zrust) are fifth-year seniors, making the day a bit tougher because of all the time they’ve spent together.
“I think that’s kind of unique,” Welter said. “There’s not many times where you have guys that redshirt and spend five years here. A lot of us have lived together. Troy and I have been roommates for five years now, so things like that are kind of special. You don’t have 11 seniors very often.”
Were they using wood bats?
Northwestern came into its series with the Gophers with a paltry 19 home runs in 50 games, and just five in 24 Big Ten games.
The Wildcats wasted no time in rendering those stats meaningless. Two homers by freshman Patrick Thompson, his second and third of the season, were responsible for Northwestern’s 7-5 win on Friday night in the series opener.
The loss, the Gophers’ 13th by one or two runs this season, drove Minnesota out of the Big Ten tournament for the second straight season.
Thompson hit a two-run homer in the second off Pederson, but his most crushing blow came in the ninth. With his team leading 5-4, Thompson launched a two-run, 435-foot homer to dead center field.
It proved to be the deciding hit, as Minnesota scored once in the bottom of the ninth.
The game was the last in a long line of close losses that the Gophers couldn’t explain.
“The same guy hits home runs off our two best pitchers,” Zrust said. “If someone had told me that before the game, I would’ve said, `Uh-uh. It can’t happen.'”
Records, etc.
Besides Diebolt’s strikeout record, a few other Gophers set or came close to setting other marks.
Sophomore Robb Quinlan shattered the single-season record for doubles in a season with 29. The old record was 24, which was held by Mark Merila, Brent Gates and John Kopfer. Quinlan’s 146 total bases were one short of tying Gates’ 1991 record.
Keeney finished his career with 12 triples, tied with Ryan Lefebvre for best in Gophers history.
The team came close to breaking a few offensive records. It’s .341 batting average was just one percentage point from the record set by the 1988 team. The Gophers’ 64 home runs (in 54 games) were just five away from the 1994 team’s mark (set in 63 games).
Hit & Run
ù Illinois’ sweep over the Gophers from Apr. 25-27 started a season-ending eight-game Big Ten winning streak that vaulted the Illini from eighth to fourth. Purdue, which finished third, won seven of its last eight.
After being swept by Illinois, the Gophers won seven of eight but lost a game to both those teams in the standings.
ù Minnesota started the Big Ten season 5-0, then went 3-9 for its next 12 games.
ù Welter, who came into the 1997 season with a .269 career average, hit .375 this season, best on the team among players with more than 100 at-bats. His .413 average in the Big Ten was second to Ohio State’s Jason Trott (.418).