Baseball rips Ohio State in tourney

Sarah Mitchell

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Considering it has won nine of its last 10 road games, but also sports a 27-5 home record, it was only fitting Minnesota’s baseball team dominated the first game of the Big Ten tournament.
The second-seeded Gophers, wearing their home uniforms against third-seeded Ohio State on Thursday at Illinois Field, jumped on the Buckeyes early en route to a 10-3 win.
As the Gophers (43-13) exited the dugout sweaty and red-faced following their victory, it was apparent the only opposition they battled on the field was the heat. The players might have known less about the near-90 degree temperatures than the Buckeyes, a team they haven’t faced since last year.
“My legs are still tired,” said Gophers pitcher Ben Birk, who picked up the complete-game victory. “It wasn’t bad at first, but once my pitch count got up near 100, I started to feel it in my legs.”
Other players, like left fielder Mark Groebner, had to deal with more adverse conditions.
“I had no problem with the heat,” Groebner said. “The problem I had was that I had a hard time picking up the ball coming out of (Birk’s) hand, the path of the ball to the plate and off the hitter’s bat. The bleachers here are metallic. With the sun, I couldn’t pick up the path of the ball.”
Groebner didn’t have to strain his eyes that much, as Birk threw fewer than 100 pitches for the game. He also had very little trouble at the plate, smacking a pair of home runs, including a two-run shot that gave Minnesota a first-inning lead.
“I kind of struggled the past two weekends. Our coach can attest to that,” Groebner said. “We were even working on it in practice this week, trying to straighten out the quirks.”
The senior’s offense was basically all Birk needed. The left-hander improved to 8-1, surrendering eight hits and three runs while striking out one.
Birk’s strikeout count was unusually low for the sophomore. On the season, he has struck out 62 batters in only 58 innings of work. But Buckeyes hitters were anxious at the plate, making it impossible for Birk to retire them himself.
“They were really aggressive, Birk said. “They were swinging at a lot of first-pitch fastballs, and I was staying ahead in the count for the most part.
“They definitely helped me out. As long as I kept the ball down, they swung at it.”
Ohio State pitcher Justin Fry’s performance was exactly the opposite. The junior came to the tournament with a 4.06 ERA and is Ohio State’s strikeout leader with 110 in 93 innings.
Fry added three K’s to that total against the Gophers, but struggled early on to retire hitters. As soon as the pitcher found himself ahead in the count, he started to nibble at the plate. The Gophers were able to work several unfavorable counts into better hitting situations, leading to nine hits and seven runs through three innings off Fry.
Groebner hit his 16th and 17th homers of the year. The senior said his swing felt good in pre-game warm-ups and that the confidence followed him into the game.
“I thought today in batting practice I saw the ball pretty well. I kind of flattened out my swing a bit. It just kind of carried over to the game,” he said. “I picked up all the pitches (Fry) was throwing at me pretty well. It looked like a beach ball.”
Groebner wasn’t the only Gopher batter to take the ball deep, as catcher Jeremy Negen hit his second home run of the season. Apparently, Illinois Field is a hitter’s park to the sophomore — his first homer of the season came during the team’s mid-April series in Champaign.
Designated hitter Adam Horton and center fielder Mike Arlt added to the 18-hit attack, combining to go 7-for-7.
“The only thing I can say is that (Fry) left balls over the middle of the plate,” Groebner said. “That’s why it was easier to hit.”
Groebner’s first home run gave Minnesota an early cushion — a key nerve relaxant in game one of a double-elimination tournament.
“I thought it was important for us to come out and establish some momentum,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “We have only two players who have played in the Big Ten tournament before.”
The entire team now at least has one game of tourney experience, and advances further along in the winner’s bracket of the tournament. The Gophers are scheduled to play Penn State today at 3:30, with Brad Pautz as Minnesota’s likely starting pitcher.
With the win, the Gophers are guaranteed at least two more games on the road trip.
“The only concern I had is that we’ve been playing on the road so long, and how it would affect us,” Anderson said. “We have been playing with confidence, relaxed, the past few weekends.”
Gophers hitting statistics

AB R H RBI
Quinlan 6 0 3 1
Scanlon 6 0 0 0
Selander 3 2 1 0
Groebner 5 2 2 4
R. Brosseau 3 2 2 0
Horton 3 0 3 0
Egan 2 0 0 0
Arlt 4 3 4 1
M. Brosseau 5 0 2 1
Jeremy Negen 3 1 1 2
Totals 40 10 18 9