U upset by Illinois in opener

by Sarah Mitchell

The Gophers baseball team excelled during the Big Ten regular season, compiling 21 conference wins in 28 attempts. But when the Gophers needed a win most at the conference tournament Thursday, they couldn’t make it happen.
Second-seeded Minnesota (41-15 overall, 19-5 in the Big Ten) dropped its first-round game against Illinois 12-9 at Ohio State. Suddenly, Minnesota is one defeat short of falling out of contention for a second straight Big Ten tournament title.
“I thought we had a good chance to win this one,” Gophers senior Robb Quinlan said. “But I guess we never had the lead. It didn’t go the way we expected.”
Minnesota’s pitching staff factored into the loss, chipping in 10 walks to the Illini’s (34-20, 15-12) cause. Starter Brad Pautz allowed six of the free rides and was relieved by senior Aron Amundson with two outs in the sixth inning. The Gophers’ starting ace allowed eight hits and nine runs, all of which were earned.
“I think he struggled with the zone,” Amundson said. “The umpire’s zone was kind of inconsistent.”
Illinois hitters weren’t fooled by the hard-throwing Pautz. After retiring the first two Illini hitters he faced, Pautz surrendered a home run to Illinois designated hitter D.J. Svihlik.
The Gophers responded in their first at-bats. Big Ten player of the year Robb Quinlan’s two-run shot off Illinois starting pitcher Jason Anderson gave Minnesota its only lead of the game.
Illinois posted three runs in the third inning. After that, the Illini outmatched all of Minnesota’s scoring runs.
“It kind of felt like we were battling all game,” Amundson said. “We did have the lead, but I don’t think it was for that long.”
Minnesota’s final rally came during the bottom of the sixth inning, as the Gophers answered the Illini’s three-run sixth inning.
Coming off a 6-for-10 performance against Michigan State last weekend, Gophers sophomore Josh Holthaus picked up his team offensively. Pinch hitting for catcher Jeremy Negen, Holthaus delivered a three-run home run in the bottom of the sixth inning to bring the Gophers to within one run.
Minnesota’s sixth-inning attack didn’t stop there. Designated hitter Amundson, who was also pitching at the time, tied the game with an RBI single to left field.
“I hit really well (Thursday),” Amundson said. “It was nice to be pitching well, too. I threw strikes and got the ground balls.”
Taking over for Amundson in the top of the eighth inning, Gophers closer Frank Wagner couldn’t stymie the Illini’s offense. Illinois scored the game’s final three runs, handing Wagner his fourth loss of the season.
Minnesota is now in the loser’s bracket and will play Ohio State today at 2 p.m. The top-seeded Buckeyes lost to Michigan Thursday.
“We’re definitely taking the more difficult route,” Amundson said. “But who knows? Luckily for us, it’s a double-elimination tournament.”