Gophers disconnect the bullpen phone

by Sarah Mitchell

Gophers relief pitchers might be headed to the unemployment line this after seeing a scant amount of work during this weekend’s series against Iowa. Only one inning of relief pitching was needed through 32 innings as Minnesota’s baseball team swept Iowa at Siebert Field.
Freshman Kurt Haring, the only relief pitcher to make a mound appearance, got the call in the top of the sixth inning of Saturday’s seven-inning second game. In his rare outing, Haring faced only five Hawkeyes batters, surrendering two hits and three runs, none of which were earned, while walking one and recording one strikeout.
But while the bullpen was hardly used this weekend, none of the relievers are complaining. The Gophers would rather have a four-game sweep against a deep Iowa lineup than more work for their relief corps.
“Every team has three or four really good hitters. They can make or break a game,” said Dan McGrath, who pitched an eight-hit shutout Sunday. “As long as the pitching is doing well, they can’t hurt us.”
On paper, the Hawkeyes’ offense seemed more lethal than codeine mixed with a shot of vodka. Four Iowa hitters brought batting averages of more than .400 into Friday night’s game. However, Gophers pitchers unified to hold Iowa’s offense to just 31 hits and 10 runs through four games and quiet the Hawkeyes’ offensive threat.
McGrath performed impressively on the mound during Sunday’s game, which was the toughest battle of the series. The Australia native allowed eight hits while walking one and striking out five. Sunday’s game was a pitchers’ duel until the end, with the Gophers getting a timely hit from pinch hitter Josh Holthaus in the ninth inning to win 1-0.
“It’s been a very long time since I have gone longer than seven innings. My arm is a little bit sore,” McGrath said. “Emotionally, the game was a roller coaster.”
McGrath was not the Gophers’ only shutout artist. Junior Brad Pautz turned in a stellar performance in which Iowa hitters barely blemished the hit column. Like McGrath, Pautz, who pitched game one of Saturday’s doubleheader, needed no help from the bullpen. Pautz threw a three-hitter in which he walked three and fanned five to improve to 3-2.
“They are just throwing strikes. They have been all year,” freshman shortstop Rick Brosseau said of the team’s pitching performance. “There is nothing more we can ask of them.”
Junior right fielder Craig Selander agreed with Brosseau, saying that the pitching staff gave the team a chance to win every game.
“Whether it’s someone going nine innings or our bullpen coming in, they have done a good job all year,” Selander said.
The pitching staff is beginning to solidify after suffering the loss of its number one pitcher. McGrath was given the role of game four starter when Ben Birk was forced to the bench with a sore shoulder. The Gophers have gone 6-2 in the Big Ten, with a split against Purdue and this weekend’s sweep, in Birk’s absence.
“It’s unfortunate that Ben got injured, but there are so many guys that can step up to the starter role,” McGrath said.
When Birk does return, either senior Jason Dobis or McGrath will start Sunday games depending upon how much either of them is used in relief during the preceding three games. McGrath’s original role was as a reliever, but head coach John Anderson is pleased to see the sophomore develop as a starter.
“Danny has shown us that he can do the job and it will give us some choices on Sunday between Dobis and him,” Anderson said. “It gives us some depth in our bullpen.”
Anderson said the bullpen will have an opportunity to work during the team’s two mid-week game. The Gophers are scheduled to play home games against St. John’s and Concordia of St. Paul on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively.
“I am sure they are itching, but who knows, there will be one week where our starting pitchers won’t do well and then those guys will get the call,” McGrath said.
Birk’s return could possibly make a McGrath mound appearance rare if the starters continue to go the distance. But McGrath has an interesting suggestion that would make his extinction impossible.
“Maybe we should have five-game series instead,” he said.