Baseball splits games at Illinois

Anthony Maggio

Before Minnesota’s baseball team practiced last Wednesday, center fielder Sam Steidl addressed his team’s undefeated conference record with some caution.

“We’re not going to win every game in the Big Ten,” Steidl said. “But we’ll try.”

The Gophers (23-13, 12-2 Big Ten) managed to extend their conference winning streak to 11 games with a 7-0 victory on Friday against Illinois (20-14, 8-8), tying the program’s best-ever Big Ten start. But the Illini realized Steidl’s prediction on Saturday, sweeping the doubleheader 4-2, and 21-2 at Illinois Field.

Sunday, Minnesota turned things around to win 7-6 and split the series.

“Obviously we’re a little disappointed (that the streak ended),” second baseman Luke Appert said. “But the important thing is the way we bounced back to win (Sunday).”

Despite splitting the series at Illinois, Minnesota still has a comfortable lead in the conference mid-way through the Big Ten season. Second-place Ohio State split a home series with Indiana, moving to 10-6 in the conference.

“We’re really happy where we’re at right now,” shortstop Scott Welch said. “We’re in the driver’s seat right now, but we’ve got to keep getting better.”

The Gophers jumped ahead of Illinois early on Sunday, as designated hitter Andy Hunter hit his second home run of the series in the top of the first inning, this one a three-run shot. After extending to a 5-2 advantage, Illini shortstop Eric Eymann flied to center field with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh. Steidl lost the ball in the sun, and all three runners scored on what was ruled a single for Eymann.

Minnesota regained the lead in the top of the eighth thanks to RBIs from Matt Fornasiere and Appert, and hung on for a one-run win.

Saturday was the first time that Minnesota was swept in a doubleheader since March 20, 2002, when Michigan State accomplished the feat.

In the Gophers first 11 Big Ten games, they allowed only 36 total runs. In the two losses on Saturday, Minnesota allowed 25 runs.

In the first game, the Gophers couldn’t deliver a clutch at bat and managed just two runs on seven hits. Senior C.J. Woodrow (4-3) pitched a complete game for Minnesota, allowing four runs on seven hits while striking out six.

In the second contest, Illinois demolished the Gophers pitching staff, scoring 21 runs on five different pitchers. Junior Jay Gagner (3-3) started for Minnesota, but lasted just two and two-thirds innings after giving up seven runs on nine hits.

Andy Peters, Nate Broehm, Nick McCauley, and Tim Theis all allowed at least a run. Theis was the only reliever who threw more than two-thirds of an inning, as the Illini bats connected for 17 hits.

“It was horrible,” Welch said. “Nothing went right for us and they hit every hole (on offense). It was a bad game all around.”

It was a different story in game one, as redshirt freshman Glen Perkins threw his first career shutout. Nine of Minnesota’s last 10 outs were strikeouts by Perkins (5-1), who fanned 15 Illinois batters in nine innings.

“That was the most dominant pitching performance I’ve seen at Minnesota in a long time,” coach John Anderson said.

Hunter and Appert led the Gophers’ offensive charge on the weekend, combining for 11 RBIs in the series. Hunter hit a home run in both Minnesota victories, the first two round-trippers of his career. Appert went 9-for-15 for the series.

The Gophers travel to Cedar Rapids, Iowa for a non-conference game with Northern Iowa on Wednesday at 3 p.m.

Anthony Maggio covers baseball and welcomes comments at [email protected]