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Minnesota baseball drops series, wins finale

It was another series featuring offensive struggles for the Gophers baseball team, but a defensive effort in the finale helped ignite enough offense to avoid a sweep.
Image by Audrey Rauth
Gopher Batter Jack Wassel follows through his swing in U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday, March 7. The Gophers lost to Indiana, 8-1.

Gophers fall 6-1 in pitching duel Friday after 10th inning Illini breakout

Gophers’ starter Sam Ireland had a much better outing than his 2021 debut. Ireland got the action going with back-to-back 1-2-3 innings before running into trouble with the bottom of the lineup. After loading the bases, Ireland worked around the trouble and got out of the jam.

He continued to deal through six innings striking out two and allowing just four hits. With one out, in the seventh inning, Illini catcher Ryan Hampe took a ball to left field to break the scoreless tie.

Ireland finished off his night with a quality start going seven and a third innings, giving up just one run on five hits while striking out three. He walked two, but was able to strand five runners.

“[Ireland] had good fastball command, I thought he had his best slider and changeup mix he’s had since he got here. I was just impressed with his ability to locate three pitches and get out there and execute them,” Gophers head coach John Anderson said.

On the offensive end, Minnesota ran into some issues with Illinois pitcher Andrew Hoffman. Hoffman was dealing in the series opener and sent down nine Gophers while allowing just three hits.

Late into Hoffman’s outing, the Gophers were finally able to get a runner across. First baseman Ronald Sweeny drew a two-out walk and right fielder Jack Kelly singled and drove him around on an error by the shortstop. That was enough to get the Fighting Illini to pull Hoffman and go to their bullpen.

Even with Hoffman out, the Gophers still struggled to get things going on offense for the rest of the night. They finished with just seven hits and one run. Second baseman Zack Raabe accounted for three hits while third baseman Jack Wassel accounted for two.

Pitcher Ryan Duffy replaced Ireland and coasted through the eighth and ninth. Unfortunately, he ran into some trouble in the 10th, which ultimately was the difference in the game. After surrendering just two hits while striking out four, Duffy struggled in the 10th and Illinois pushed five runs across the plate, taking the series opener 6-1.

Gophers drop both in doubleheader Saturday

The Gophers baseball team lost the first of Saturday’s doubleheader 11-8, despite having an early lead.

The offense finally clicked in the first matchup of the doubleheader. Minnesota put up eight runs but failed to hold onto an early lead despite having its ace on the bump. Pitcher J.P. Massey hasn’t got off to a hot start to the 2021 season and ran into some trouble once again.

A two-run cushion in the first inning was quickly erased as Illinois answered with a run in three straight innings to take the lead in the fourth. That would end Massey’s day after Illinois scored three runs on three hits and four walks.

The game broke open in the fifth inning when the Fighting Illini put up six spot to extend their lead to 9-2. From then on, Minnesota was trying to fight its way back into the game.

In the seventh inning, the Gophers put together a rally that included four walks and three hit-by-pitches, and the score got within three. Illinois was able to close out the inning without further damage and took game one.

Game two of the doubleheader wasn’t too favorable for Minnesota, who saw an early deficit continue to grow.

Back-to-back home runs in the second inning gave a 3-0 lead to the Fighting Illini, who didn’t stop there. The Gophers got one back in the third inning, which turned out to be their lone run.

Illinois answered right back to extend its lead to four, which ultimately was increased to six. The Fighting Illini took game two 7-1, in a full nine-inning contest to secure the series win. They dropped Minnesota to 1-6 while getting above .500 themselves.

Gophers win series finale Sunday

The Gophers managed to avoid the sweep on Sunday, beating the Illini 5-3 in the series finale.

The Gophers used their momentum in the field to get their bats going. After scoring two runs or less in five of its first seven games, Minnesota came alive in the series finale. It started in the field with the first of three double-play balls and continued for the next two innings.

Gophers pitcher Jack Liffrig induced three separate double plays in three straight innings. The Gophers used that momentum in the batter’s box and scored in the preceding three half innings. The three-inning stretch was capped by a crooked number inning highlighted by back-to-back home runs from Raabe and Wassel.

“I think that’s been one of our problems so far this year is having long, long innings,” Anderson said. “It’s harder to perform on offense when you’re on your feet that long, so I thought Liffrig did a good job getting us on and off the field. The defense was able to make some good plays, they weren’t on the back of their heels, there was action, and it was quick action.”

Liffrig didn’t have his best outing, but he was picking up outs at the right time. Liffrig was able to avoid any damage in the next four innings after allowing a run in the first inning, though he constantly ran into trouble.

It wasn’t until a two-out, two-strike ball was taken to left-center field for a two-run homer that Liffrig’s night came to an end. Anderson turned to his bullpen for the remainder of the game and they got the job done.

The bullpen picked up the final 10 outs while allowing just four hits and striking out five. Duffy capped it off by striking out the side in the ninth inning to close out the game.

The mid-game offensive spurt was enough to pick up a win in the series finale.

Raabe had an outstanding series, and Illinois finally gave him the respect he deserved. In his final two at-bats, Raabe was intentionally walked in order to keep the damage minimal. In both cases, it worked out for the Fighting Illini, but it was a little too late. Raabe finished with two hits, two RBIs and three walks to lead Minnesota to its second win of the season.

“[Raabe] is a leader. They follow along with him, they learn a lot from him, he’s helped a lot of the younger players. Both him and Jack Wassel have a significant number of at-bats in this league and they’ve been great, both of them. Zack has picked right where he left off last season,” Anderson said.

Minnesota is back in action at US Bank Stadium again next weekend, but will play as the away team when Northwestern comes to town for a three-game series.

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