After a march through the Big Ten tournament’s loser’s bracket, the defending champion Gophers baseball team ultimately fell short of the title game after a 6-3 loss to Michigan State.
Following a string of impressive victories over higher-ranked opponents, Minnesota ran out of rallies and pitches, as it fell to the No. 2 Spartans. Michigan State then lost to the eventual champion, No. 1 Illinois.
Finishing third is an accomplishment in itself for the Gophers, as they were ranked fifth coming into the tournament and outperformed their seed.
Head coach John Anderson said he was disappointed that the players’ seasons had to end that way — especially the seniors, whose careers came to a close Saturday — but added that he was impressed with the run his team made.
“We would have never got to this point without the pitching staff that we had,” Anderson said. “Todd Oakes and the job he did with our pitching staff — they had a phenomenal year — it kept us in the tournament. He deserves a lot credit. In a year we didn’t have a lot of offense, you’ve got to give Todd a lot of credit.”
The offense, which had been the Achilles’ heel of Minnesota all year, erupted several times for huge innings en route to a couple of wins in the loser’s bracket.
They were originally dismissed to the loser’s bracket with an opening-round loss to Ohio State that featured a pitching meltdown of five runs and two errors.
Starting pitcher TJ Oakes was cruising through seven innings, but he gave up a couple base runners before bowing in favor of closer Scott Matyas.
The Gophers were 20-0 on the season when leading after seven innings, but Matyas blew the save, thanks, in part, to a sure-double play ball that caromed off Matyas, which second baseman Matt Puhl was unable to play.
When the Buckeye’s rally was finished, they had taken a 5-3 lead and eventually won by that mark.
“It was tough,” first baseman Nick O’Shea said. “We had a well-pitched game to that point. TJ did a great job on the mound and usually when we bring a lead late in to a game, we win. Today we realized that isn’t always a guarantee.”
Facing elimination in their next game, the Gophers’ offense exploded and Phil Isaksson pitched well enough to stave off elimination and end Penn State’s season with an 8-2 victory.
O’Shea’s two-run home run powered the rally, and his bat loomed large throughout the tournament.
The Gophers then knocked off Ohio State in a rematch with the team that sent them to the loser’s bracket, 9-4. That victory earned them a spot in the second half of a Friday doubleheader, in which they defeated No. 3 Purdue 1-0.
Freshman Tom Windle was Friday’s hero, pitching the final three innings to earn the save in the early game, then turning around and starting the Purdue game.
There were roughly 30 minutes in between the matches, and Windle threw five shutout innings in the second game after his three scoreless frames in game one.
His performance was as big a reason as any that the Gophers were able to survive another day of elimination games and knock off two favored opponents in the process.
Minnesota’s hunt to repeat as Big Ten champions ended with the 6-3 loss to the Spartans on Saturday, a game in which true freshman DJ Snelten — a veteran of three starts, none longer than four innings — pitched the opening frames.
He pitched admirably, tossing five innings, with four earned runs and two walks, but the extra games the team had to play through the loser’s bracket ultimately cost them.
If the Gophers won out, they would have had significantly fewer games and could have likely shouldered the pitching load with more ease.
Anderson said he was pleased with the way the team — especially the seniors — endured the trials and tribulations of the tournament and of a strange year in general.
“They’ve shown toughness all year. They haven’t quit on us all year based on what’s gone on,” Anderson said, referring to the collapse of the Metrodome roof and the extremely uncooperative spring weather that caused numerous cancellations.
“They would have quit a long time ago if they didn’t have some toughness.”
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