Birk recovering spot in U’s rotation

Courtney Scheskie

The future looked bright for Ben Birk in 1998. As a sophomore, the southpaw dominated the Big Ten with an 8-2 record and a 2.65 ERA two years ago.
But Birk was hampered during the 1999 season with a nerve inflammation that kept him out of the entire season.
After the disappointment of not throwing in a game last year, Birk is making strides and beginning to look like his old self.
In the first game Saturday, Birk pitched four innings, giving up four hits and one run en route to a 2-1 win against Iowa. The Gophers swept Saturday’s doubleheader with a 13-1 win in the second game.
As part of the rehab for his injury last year, Birk was told not to pick up a baseball for a month.
But even with that time off, the pain below his elbow came back off and on throughout the spring. He threw sporadically in practices but he was never anywhere near full strength for the season.
In February this year, Birk was again faced with the possibility of sitting another season out. But then he had a short relapse of tendonitis that has limited his time in the Minnesota rotation.
With the nature of the injury, too much strain could bring the pain back and keep him off the mound again.
So Birk is still is on his road to recovery. He pitched three innings of no-hit ball to start a game last week against Northwestern. The improvement continued Saturday when Birk lasted four innings for the win.
Not that he didn’t want to do more. When Birk was taken out of the game in the fourth Saturday, he put his head down a little and walked to the dugout. He’d started the fifth inning, but let a runner get on base.
“I was just frustrated I didn’t get him out,” Birk said. “I’d love to be able to go all seven innings.”
But Birk did what Minnesota needed to win the game. The key for the team this weekend was getting the lead early and keeping it. By giving up only one run, the Gophers got the momentum they needed to pull them to a 2-1 win.
“We wanted to put a zero up at the top of the first and (Birk) did that for us,” coach John Anderson said of Birk. “He put up for zeros and that was important.”
“Putting up a goose-egg and then scoring helps tremendously for the whole series,” Birk added.
Though the Gophers have had good starts from Mike Kobow and Kelly Werner, there is still a need for another starter. Birk showed his potential in past seasons and Minnesota is looking to him to step back into the rotation.
On Friday, Kobow pitched nine innings and gave up eight runs to give the Gophers the first win of the Iowa series. Werner allowed only one run in game three to help Minnesota nab a 13-1 win. In the first three games, Minnesota’s staff gave up five runs in the first inning of Friday’s game, and only two runs over the next 26 innings.
With Birk coming back slowly but surely, the team is looking forward to more consistent pitching. But the best way to keep Birk in the game is to keep him from taking on too much too soon.
“I know right now, the way my arm is, I need to take it slowly,” Birk said.