The Gophers appeared on track for a crucial series victory over Iowa on Sunday until an ugly inning threw them off course.
Minnesota won 4-3 in the first game Friday and dropped the second game 11-5 Saturday afternoon.
That left the rubber match on Sunday.
Minnesota led 3-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning, and then its bullpen imploded. The Gophers gave up six runs and eventually fell 7-6 at the hands of the Hawkeyes.
“We’d like to have this one back,” centerfielder Dan Motl said. “You’re not going to win a lot of ballgames giving up six runs in an inning,”
Neal Kunik made his first career start for Minnesota on Sunday and was in line for the win until the implosion in the bullpen.
Minnesota head coach John Anderson decided to switch up his starting rotation for the first time this year and turned to Kunik in lieu of starter Jordan Jess, who entered the weekend with an 0-6 record and a 5.05 ERA.
Kunik said he found out earlier in the week that he’d be pitching against Iowa.
“I think going out for the first start, I definitely had some nerves initially, but those quickly calmed down once I got out of that first inning,” Kunik said.
He pitched six innings and gave up three hits and no runs. His stellar outing was spoiled in the seventh inning after relievers Kevin Kray and Dalton Sawyer struggled to record outs.
Kray and Sawyer, two of Minnesota’s most dependable options out of the bullpen, each gave up three runs. Sawyer gave up another run in the eighth, but the Gophers rallied in their last at-bat.
Motl singled with one out in the ninth inning to start the comeback bid.
“I knew if we got someone on, there were a lot of guys behind me … that could definitely do some damage, and that’s what they did,” Motl said.
The Gophers scored three runs in the inning, but it wasn’t enough.
“The thing we’ve been stressing is being able to close out games, and it’s something we haven’t been doing lately,” Motl said. “That goes with pitching and hitting.”
Anderson said Kunik will start again next weekend. He said Jess, who came in and struck out the only batter he faced, looked comfortable in his role out of the bullpen.
Jess is one of two lefthanded pitchers on the roster, and Anderson said moving him to the bullpen will give Sawyer, the other lefty on the team, a bit of a break.
“We’ll try not to use Dalton as much as we have,” Anderson said. “I think it caught up to him here today.”
Minnesota and Iowa came into the series with the same conference record, but the loss puts the Gophers eighth in the Big Ten.
“It was a big series being tied with them, to start trying to separate ourselves from that part of the pack,” Motl said. “So losing two out of three hurts, but we’re still right there.”
Though the Gophers ended the series with a loss, they started it with a quality start from Alec Crawford on Friday.
Crawford gave up three runs in 7.1 innings of work in a no-decision. The Gophers scored the go-ahead run in the ninth inning on an error, and Sawyer, who pitched 1.2 innings, got the win.
Minnesota dropped the contest on Saturday, despite scoring four runs in the first inning. Gophers freshman Brian Glowicki, who came on in relief of Ben Meyer, gave up six runs, five earned, and took the loss.
Minnesota shortstop Michael Handel, who hit a home run Friday, went 3-for-5 with a run scored and three runs driven in Saturday.
Handel’s offensive outburst was overshadowed as he pulled his hamstring. Anderson said he was unsure when Handel would return.
“He was in the middle of our lineup doing a good job, and now he’s out, and [we’re] back to square one,” Anderson said. “It never ends.”
The Gophers will get back to Big Ten play next weekend at home against Penn State, but first, they will host Hamline on Wednesday.