The Gophers had been in first place in the Big Ten baseball race since sweeping three games from Northwestern a month ago. That changed Friday, when Nebraska opened a weekend series with a 6-0 victory over the Gophers.
Indiana was beating Northwestern and that allowed the Hoosiers to move past the Gophers by percentage points.
“We had lost three straight for the first time [in 2013] — the last game to Penn State, to Milwaukee and then yesterday,” Gophers coach John Anderson said Saturday. “This was a big game; we had to turn it around.”
Anderson is a lifelong Minnesotan. He grew up on the Iron Range. He has been associated with the Gophers baseball program for four decades.
And he agrees with many Minnesota lifers: This is the most miserable spring in our frozen history.
“The difference this year has been you get a couple of nice days and say, ‘Here we go,’ and then back comes the cold, snow and ice,” Anderson said.
Meaning, this wasn’t the choice year for the Gophers to debut the new Siebert Field. Entering this weekend, there was an even split with games scheduled at Siebert: six played and six canceled.
On Friday, the weather and the crowd were good. Only the result was distressing.
On Saturday, back came the cold on the wings of a strong northwest wind. The paid attendance was 1,064 — at least triple what the Gophers would have drawn on a similar afternoon in the last few years at the old, falling-down Siebert.
Righthander Alec Crawford was the Game 2 starter. He was able to get ground balls from coach Darin Erstad’s Cornhuskers in the top of the first.
That’s supposed to be a good thing. This time, it produced three errors from Gophers infielders — all on bobbles, none on throws.
“I know those guys have made those plays 500 times,” Crawford said. “I had to keep throwing good pitches and limit the damage.”
Crawford limited it to two runs that were as unearned as unearned runs can get.
The Gophers came back with a run in the second, and took a 3-2 lead on Kurt Schlangen’s two-run double in the third. Nebraska tied it in the fourth and it still was 3-3 when Crawford departed with two outs in the seventh.
In came Dalton Sawyer, a 6-foot-4 freshman lefthander from Waconia. He left two runners on base, and followed with a scoreless eighth.
Sawyer’s one previous win had come over Augsburg, 4-1 on April 16. The big hit in that victory was Mark Tatera’s two-run single as a pinch hitter.
The result was bit more crucial for the Gophers on Saturday. Another home loss to the Huskers would have decreased greatly the chance of Anderson’s team being able to enter the Big Ten tournament May 22-24 at Target Field as the regular-season champ and No. 1 seed.
Ryan Abrahamson opened the bottom of the eighth inning with a single and was bunted to second. The lefthanded-hitting Tatera came off the bench to pinch hit for designated hitter Alex LaShomb.
The wind was howling out to all fields, and yet LaShomb had been the only hitter to challenge the fence — on a fly to the track in deep left-center. Still, the Nebraska outfielders were playing deep, in deference to the wind.
Tatera hit a fly ball into medium center field. “I wasn’t sure if it was going to drop,” he said. “I did know the center fielder was playing the fence.”
Abrahamson made an early read that Nebraska center fielder Rich Sanguinetti wouldn’t get there. The ball fell and Abrahamson scored with a slide. Sawyer struck out the side in the ninth to get the 4-3 victory.
The Gophers (12-5) moved back ahead of Indiana (14-6), a loser to Northwestern, by percentage points.
Tatera grew up in Eagan and attended Holy Angels. He went to Duke with two agendas: to play baseball and to enter the pre-med program.
“That didn’t fit the coach’s philosophy,” Tatera said. “He thought pre-med would be too time-consuming. So, I came home after my freshman year.”
Where Tatera’s playing baseball and studying pre-med at the University of Minnesota, a school where smart athletes are tolerated.