Gophers-Illini series lives up to hype

Sarah Mitchell

A near no-hitter. Hitters hanging in the batter’s box, battling back from down-in-the-count to rip another hit. Two one-run games.
The Gophers baseball team’s home series against Illinois over the weekend almost exceeded the hype.
Aside from the theatrics, Minnesota (34-12 overall, 15-5 in the Big Ten) found itself in unfamiliar territory after the series opener. The Gophers squandered a three-run lead and lost to Illinois 7-6. For the first time this season, Minnesota had a three-game losing streak.
But the Gophers quickly turned the skid into something more familiar and now have a three-game win streak, defeating the Illini (27-27, 12-9) 3-2 and 5-2 on Saturday and 7-3 on Sunday.
“As a coach I was kind of concerned if we’re going to be fragile and I wondered if things were really going to snowball,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “There were opportunities for us to panic and as they say let the snowball get bigger as it rolled down the hill. After we won the first game on Saturday, I said, ‘I think we have a chance to win a lot of games here the rest of the year.'”
Pitching saved the series for Minnesota. Senior Brad Pautz (7-2) took the reins in the first of two games on Saturday, falling just three outs short of a no-hitter.
Like Pautz, junior Chadd Clarey (5-1) didn’t need the Gophers bullpen on Sunday. The right-hander recorded his first complete game of the season.
After recovering from a rocky start — surrendering two runs in the top of the first — Clarey bought time for Minnesota’s offense. The team scattered three one-run innings before responding in the bottom of the seventh.
Tied at three, the Gophers put together a four-run inning. Illinois reliever Andy Dickinson came out of the bullpen after starter Bob Burlage surrendered back-to-back hits. Lead-off hitter Matt Scanlon singled to right field while senior Robb Quinlan doubled to left field.
With Gophers on second and third, Dickinson’s wild pitch allowed Scanlon to tally his only run of the day and Quinlan to advance to second. Dickinson then surrendered a hit to the first batter he faced, pinch hitter Josh Holthaus, which drove Quinlan in from third.
The Gophers recorded two more runs in the seventh, and a diving grab by Gophers outfielder Scott Howard past the third base line in shallow left field secured the come-from-behind win.
“We always think we’re in position to win, especially when our pitching staff keeps us in the game,” Howard said. “We never really worry about that. We don’t panic.”
By taking three of four, the Gophers remained locked in second in Big Ten standings, four games back of Ohio State. The Illini, a team that was just one win away from the College World Series a year ago, once again fell out of the conference’s top four and has only four league games remaining to make up some ground. This slip doesn’t surprise Illinois coach Itch Jones.
“We’re like a yo-yo. We’ve been up and down all year,” Jones said. “When we get some hitting and pitching we win. I thought our pitching was decent this weekend. Our hitters were pathetic.”
The Gophers will look to pick up more home wins this week. Minnesota has a game against St. Thomas on Wednesday before opening a Big Ten series with Northwestern on Friday.