Late U lead evaporates against Tide

Sarah Mitchell

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Gophers pitcher Ben Birk sat slouched low in his seat, his normally mischievous eyes avoiding those of the reporters sitting before him.
By his drugged-looking gaze, it was obvious the 6-foot-6 southpaw was mentally torturing himself, questioning how game one of his team’s bid to win the West region, a game that was under Minnesota’s control for seven innings, did not result in a storybook ending.
Birk, along with the Gophers’ other eight starters, know they had every opportunity to come out of Thursday’s game at Sunken Field against number two seeded Alabama (44-16) on a high and assured of at least two more games.
Instead, the Gophers lost 8-2 to the Crimson Tide, a score that doesn’t accurately reflect the contest. It was a battle of pitchers: Birk against Alabama’s Jarrod Kingrey, who was named a second-team All-American.
The Gophers found themselves leading 2-1 heading into the eighth inning. But scant production from Minnesota’s bats, including a bases loaded, one out situation in the 8th that resulted in two Kingrey strikeouts, forced the Gophers to accept their first loss in tournament play. Minnesota went 3-0 last weekend in winning the Big Ten tournament.
“I thought we had an opportunity in the seventh and the eighth,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “We had guys in scoring position, and we couldn’t get one more hit.”
What Minnesota failed to do with runners in scoring position, Alabama reversed only once, causing enough damage to secure the win. The Crimson Tide offense faced the exact situation the Gophers faced in their at bat in the 8th — bases loaded and one out.
But Alabama was able to capitalize, exploding for seven runs. Shortstop Andy Phillips doubled to drive in two runs. Third baseman G.W. Keller singled, allowing another run to score. Four runs later, including two home runs off Gophers reliever Brad Pautz, Minnesota would finally seek refuge in its dugout.
“We had six outs left in the game and I think the kids got ahead of themselves, more mentally than physically,” Anderson said.
Birk, who is 8-2, pitched solidly until the 8th inning lapse, allowing just four hits to that point.
“I definitely felt my arm getting tired, and I wasn’t getting ahead of the batters like early in the game,” Birk said of his physical condition in the 8th inning. “That cost me.”
Perhaps a more costly move was bringing in Pautz. The right-hander provided no relief, surrendering four hits and three runs.
“I thought we stuck with Birk as long as we could,” Anderson said. “We went with Pautz, and unfortunately he didn’t pitch as well as he has all season.”
Minnesota was not the only team in the Big Ten on Thursday to lose something that could have been. The only other Big Ten team competing in a regional, fifth-seeded Illinois, was defeated in the South Region I by second seeded Wake Forest. At one point the Illini were winning 9-3, but they ended up losing 14-12.
Dan McGrath is scheduled to take the mound for the Gophers today as the team battles either top-seeded Stanford or sixth-seeded Loyola Marymount at 1 p.m. Anderson expects a different outcome.
“I think we played well for the most part, and I expect us to play well tomorrow,” Anderson said. “You never like to be in the loser’s bracket, but it’s still exciting to still be in it and have a chance.”
If anything, the Gophers can walk away from Thursday’s game with a consolation prize.
“The first game is always tough,” Alabama head coach Jim Wells said. “I am very pleased we won that game because Minnesota is a great team.”

Gophers hitting statistics

Quinlan 4 0 1 0
Scanlon 4 0 1 0
Selander 4 0 0 0
Groebner 2 1 0 0
R. Brosseau 4 0 1 0
Horton 2 1 0 0
Arlt 3 0 0 0
M. Brosseau 4 0 2 2
Negen 3 0 0 0
Devore 1 0 0 0
Totals 31 2 5 2

East Regional
Southern California 10, Fordham 6
South Alabama 2, Virginia Commonwealth 1
Clemson 23, Citadel 3
Atlantic I Regional
Texas Tech 6, North Carolina 2
South Carolina 21, Florida International 9
Bowling Green (34-19) at Miami (46-9), (n)
Atlantic II Regional
Oklahoma 6, Delaware 3
Rutgers 17, Auburn 15
Florida State 10, Liberty 7
South I Regional
Richmond 12, Baylor 10
Wake Forest 14, Illinois 12
Monmouth, N.J. (30-19) at Florida (42-15), (n)
South II Regional
Tulane 11, Southwestern Louisiana 5
Cal St. Fullerton 16, Harvard 1
Nicholls State (28-32) at LSU (42-17), (n)
Central Regional
Rice 11, Oral Roberts 1
Mississippi State 7, Washington 6
North Carolina Charlotte (43-17) at Texas A&M (43-18), (n)
Midwest Regional
Arizona State 8, Arkansas 4
Oklahoma State 13, Georgia Tech 4
Southeast Missouri State (32-22) at Wichita State (55-5), (n)
West Regional
North Carolina State State 3
Alabama 8, Minnesota 2
Loyola Marymount (33-21-1) at Stanford (41-12-1), (n)