U gets swept, drops to fifth

by Tim Klobuchar

By scoring only 12 runs in four losses to Illinois at Siebert Field this weekend, it’s likely the biggest impact the Gophers baseball team made in its weekend of hitting futility was on the Big Ten standings.
The Illini, who began the series in eighth place at 9-11, shot past Minnesota into a tie for third after Sunday’s game, a 9-4 rout.
The Gophers, meanwhile, sank from third to fifth at 8-9, a game and a half behind the team they thought they had an excellent chance of beating three of four times this weekend. They fell to 21-22 overall, the first time they’ve been under .500 since March 24.
Now, Minnesota must cope with its rapid descent from regular season title contenders to scrambling just to make the post-season tournament, which includes the top four teams.
Before it can worry about its postseason aspirations, though, the Gophers will have to recover from the shock of getting swept in a Big Ten series at home for the first time since 1985.
“They have to decide if they’re going to quit or if they’re going to try to dig themselves out of the hole,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “I’d be surprised if they quit; I’ve never been part of a team that has quit, so our job is to make sure they don’t quit.”
The series opener on Friday had a familiar theme as the Gophers proved they are unable to win a close game. The 5-4 loss was Minnesota’s fifth one-run defeat of the Big Ten season.
Gophers relief ace Ted Zrust gave up his first two home runs of the season, including a game-winner in the top of the ninth. But Minnesota also missed several scoring opportunities, going just 2 for 9 with runners in scoring position.
The Gophers recovered from narrow defeats before. Last weekend, they lost two such games at Ohio State but came back to win the last two. This time, though, their lack of clutch hitting proved to be symptomatic of a bigger problem that afflicted them the entire series.
They couldn’t hit at all.
Minnesota, leading the Big Ten in hitting in conference games at .344, hit just .210 in four games against a team with a staff earned run average of 6.28 in Big Ten play.
“It’s a little embarrassing,” said Gophers sophomore Robb Quinlan after Saturday’s 5-1, 5-3 doubleheader sweep. “I think we only had nine hits all day (eight, actually), and our pitchers only gave up five hits and five runs in the second game. We’ve got to score more than five runs for them.”
They would have had to score a lot more on Sunday. The Illini jumped on Gophers starter Brad Pautz for four runs in the first inning, and led 7-0 after three. In the two Big Ten series in which they played four games (the other two were shortened because of weather), Minnesota had scored a combined 28 runs in the final game.
But Illini starter Tom Zidlicky proved to be as effective as his teammates, scattering eight hits and allowing just one earned run. He also didn’t walk anybody, a weekend-long characteristic. After walking four Gophers batters on Friday, Illinois issued just three free passes in the next three games.
Anderson didn’t lambaste his hitters for being undisciplined or unfocused. Instead, he gave credit to Illinois, mentioning a baseball credo: Good pitching beats good hitting. And this weekend, he said, Illinois had very good pitching.
“I think you have to start with the opponent,” Anderson said. “They played extremely well. They pitched extremely well. And after Friday — I think they walked four or five — they didn’t walk many after that. They got ahead in the count; they pitched down in the strike zone — I mean, all of them did.”
The Illini also helped their pitchers with big hits, something that was noticeably absent for the Gophers.
On Saturday, Illinois designated hitter T.J. Jackson hit a three-run homer in both games of the doubleheader. His blast in the fifth inning of the first game off Mike Diebolt tied the game at three, and he broke open a 2-1 game with a homer in game two.
Another Illini hero was Dan O’Neill. His bloop single to left in the seventh inning drove in the winning run in the first game Saturday. He also had a huge home run on Friday. Trailing 3-2 in the eighth, O’Neill hit a two-run homer off Zrust, the first one he’d allowed this season, to give the Illini the lead.
After the Gophers tied the game at four in their half of the eighth on Matt Scanlon’s RBI single, D.J. Svihlik, the ninth batter in the Illinois lineup, hit another homer off Zrust for the game-winner.
“The first one, I just missed my spot,” said Zrust after the game. “The second one, I have to tip my hat to him. They hit my mistakes.”
Quinlan put the Gophers on top in the first with a two-run homer, his team-leading ninth of the year. After Illinois tied it later in the game, sophomore Craig Selander hit a solo shot, his seventh, to give Minnesota the lead.
The game marked the first blown save of the year for Zrust. The Illini kept the momentum and confidence from that game for the rest of the weekend.
“It seemed like we were really up after we went ahead 2-0 in the first game on Friday,” Keeney said after the sweep was complete on Sunday. “Then, after they pulled ahead, there was no enthusiasm the rest of the weekend from the mound, from the field, from the dugout. Everyone was waiting for someone else to pick them up, and it never happened. And things just snowballed.”

Illinois 421 001 010 — 9 11 1
Gophers 000 000 103 — 4 8 3
UI — Zidlicky and Nieckula; Gophers — Pautz, Felling (1), Dobis (3) and Guse. W — Zidlicky, 5-2. L — Pautz, 0-2. HRs — UI, Svihlik (3); Gophers, Groebner (8). T — 2:20. A — 864.

Gophers hitting stats (4 games)
Scanlon 9 2 5 1
Welter 14 1 4 0
Quinlan 14 3 4 2
Stein 16 1 3 0
Groebner 5 2 2 1
Brosseau 3 0 2 0
McDermott 9 0 1 2
Guse 15 0 1 1
Keeney 11 0 1 2
Selander 9 1 1 1
Birk 3 0 1 1
Griffin 7 1 0 0
Devore 4 0 0 0
Arlt 0 1 0 0
Totals 119 12 25 11