10 Innings Extra: Gophers’ approach leads title defense

John Anderson is halfway through his 36th season leading Minnesota’s baseball team. Amassing more than 1,200 wins, Anderson has seen his share of baseball and knows what it takes to win, evident by his 10 Big Ten championships. Though the Gophers lost the Big Ten Player of the Year, their three-year catcher, four-year second baseman and center fielder, Anderson believed the reigning Big Ten champions had more than enough punch to compete for another conference crown.

With two weekend road sweeps in the first two weekends of Big Ten play, Anderson’s preseason belief is turning into a reality.

Minnesota led the Big Ten with a .323 overall batting average in 2016, while leading the conference with a .304 in-conference hitting clip. Behind 50 home runs, yielding a conference best .877 home runs per game, the Gophers slugged their way to the conference championship, the Big Ten leaders in slugging percentage at .467 overall and .440 in Big Ten games.

But the aforementioned losses, respectively Matt Fiedler, Austin Athmann, Connor Schaefbauer and Dan Motl, combined for 303 hits, 54 doubles, five doubles and 27 home runs, collective batting .342 over 885 at-bats, with a .506 slugging percentage. One wouldn’t have been foolish to predict a step backwards for Minnesota with the offensive firepower lost, Big Ten coaches picked five teams to finish higher than the Gophers who finished in a tie for sixth.

So what’s allowed Minnesota to weather such losses to be 6-0 in conference play, batting .314 in the process?

A steady approach, yielding consistency one through nine in the lineup.

In watching Minnesota, the Gophers show an uncanny ability to stay within themselves at the plate, the moment never seems too big, players aren’t overly anxious to produce a big hit. Minnesota will spit on balls outside of the zone, flip away foul balls that aren’t quite good enough, before squaring up on a pitch that can be put in play through a hole or with authority into a gap.

Starting with a 27-hit effort in two games in opening the season against UC-Irvine, Minnesota has had little difficulty replacing the big bats that carried the team to its first conference championship, watching new starters and players emerge.

“I said all along I thought we’d have a good lineup,” said Anderson, whose team picked up a 10th consecutive victory on Tuesday with a 7-1 win over North Dakota State. “The reason we’ve scored some runs, you do that with a lineup, contributions up and down the lineup.”

That has been the case for Minnesota.

There isn’t a the same pop in the lineup as last year, even a year where power is up across the board in the Big Ten, Minnesota only has 13 home runs led by left fielder Jordan Smith’s four. But led by second baseman Luke Pettersen’s Big Ten-leading .376 average, there is constant pressure put on pitchers with nine regulars are batting at least .270. The loss of power is made up with a completeness in putting the ball in play, as a team, Minnesota has only struck out 150 teams, the fewest in the Big Ten, producing a 16.6% strikeout rate. Without an easy out in the lineup, as a team Minnesota is batting .281 overall.

The Gophers did go into a lull, as Anderson calls it, at the beginning of March, scoring only 12 runs over four games between a midweek game against Hawaii and hosting the Dairy Queen Classic. The following week, Missouri State held Minnesota to 10 runs in a three-game set at U.S. Bank Stadium. But as conference play started with a showdown between two 2016 NCAA Tournament clubs, Minnesota returned to form, sweeping Ohio State behind 26 runs and 41 hits.

Following the brooming of the Buckeyes, Anderson noticed his team putting it back together.

“We’ve done a better job of squaring more balls, not chasing and expanding the zone as much as we were and just having better at-bats,” he said.

Minnesota’s approach at the plate was noticed in the opposing dugout, as Ohio State was unable to find the big hit that Minnesota produced time and time again.

“Their approach is solid, they have guys with a feel for hitting,” Ohio State head coach Greg Beals said after Minnesota recorded their first sweep of Ohio State since 1990. “They have a solid two-strike approach where they will scrap and fight you.”

Freshman Jordan Kozicky started all three games against Ohio State, stepping in for Micah Coffey who suffered a sprained ankle two weeks prior. A year after Coffey batted .333 with 23 extra-base hits, Kozicky, who says he’s an aggressive, fastball hitter, easily stepped in and picked up five hits in 12 at-bats. Almost mechanically, one part of the Minnesota machine needed replaced and the replacement part was easily inserted and continued on. That’s finding consistency.

When Coffey returned in Minnesota’s series at Michigan State, the junior picked up a three-run double to send the Gophers to a 3-2 victory, starting the eventual weekend sweep with a big win.

“I think all we need is a little inch, to get a guy on base, get him over, then get him in, Coffey said. “Guys step up in big situations. Guys keep coming to play, but guys keep coming to compete, first and foremost.”

After Minnesota left East Lansing with their perfect conference record in tact, they left another opposing coach singing their praise.

“I think we can learn a lot from what we watched out of the Minnesota dugout,” Michigan State head coach Jake Boss Jr. said after the Spartans became the second consecutive Big Ten team to be swept in a Saturday doubleheader by the Gophers. “They didn’t strike out a whole lot, and I think they really competed at the plate.”

What is allowing the players to have a mentality of being relentless in competing?

“I know it’s cliche, but they know to take it one pitch, one play, one inning at a time,” Anderson said.

The simplicity was echoed by Kozicky after he picked up two RBI to lead Minnesota to a 4-3 in the twinbill nightcap of the Michigan State doubleheader.

“If we just keep what we’re doing I think we can win another conference championship.”

Just like their head coach felt before the season started.

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