Gophers ready to show they have staying power
From last year’s Big Ten champion team, Minnesota lost its Friday night starter, Saturday starter, closer, catcher, second baseman, center fielder and DH. That’s a lot of innings, a lot of at-bats and a sizable hole to fill up the middle. On paper, one can wonder what the Gophers have left to as they look to become just the third Big Ten program since 2007-08 to win back-to-back Big Ten championships. But you’re not going to convince John Anderson the cupboard is bare as he enters his 36th season leading the Gophers. Whether or not the experts say so.
After winning the program’s first Big Ten championship in six years, Minnesota is ready to defend its crown and believes it has a roster capable of doing that. But the Gophers were predicted to finish sixth in the conference, along with Iowa, by conference coaches, and neither Baseball America or D1Baseball.com view the Gophers as contenders.
“I’m not big on paying attention to the noise, following the blogs and people saying who’s going to do what,” said Anderson, now a 10-time Big Ten champion. “I’ve always said performance is what matters, the effort you put into daily matters, the predictions don’t.”
In looked to repeat, Minnesota should get good performances mound with who they return.
The 2016 Big Ten Player of the Year, DH/RHP Matt Fiedler leaves a hole atop the Gopher rotation, but his numbers weren’t dominant on the mound, sporting a 4.32 ERA over 89.2 innings. Junior left-handed pitcher Lucas Gilbreath, one of the Big Ten’s top pitching prospects, is ready to step into the lead role for Gopher pitchers. Missing the first five weeks due to personal matters, Gilbreath is coming off of a year where he was dominant, striking out 46 in 33 innings, carrying a 1.36 ERA.
“He made an impact, but I think he’ll make much more significant of an impact this year by having the whole year. He’s a better pitcher, he’s much more mature, he played in the Cape Cod League.” Anderson said about Gilbreath.
Minnesota will miss Dalton Sawyer, the team’s Saturday starter who struck out 112 in 94.2 innings, but senior right-hander Toby Anderson will resume his Sunday role, looking to pick up where he left off following a 7-1 season, posting a 3.32 ERA. Rounding out the rotation, Minnesota will look to freshman right-hander Brett Schulze, a lean and live-armed pitcher whose fastball runs into the mid-90s and is complimented with a sharp curveball.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with what I’ve seen on the mound, the pitching isn’t bare,” Anderson said. “We think we’ll be able to put together eight quality arms to compete in the Big Ten. I’m not concerned we can’t put together a quality staff that won’t have us competitive in the Big Ten.”
There are more questions around the diamond and at the plate, but there’s enough firepower returns to believe the Gophers won’t easily relinquish the crown.
Junior third baseman Micah Coffey looks to be the driving force in the lineup, returning after a .333 season where he piled up extra-base hits, collecting 13 doubles, three triples and seven home runs. He isn’t the only player who showed he’s capable of handling the bat in the Big Ten.
Coffey is one of five projected starters returning after batting .295 or better in 2016. Sophomore shortstop Terrin Varva started his career with a bang before injuries held him to 32 games, but in 120 at-bats he picked up 43 hits for a .358 average. Juniors Alex Boxwell and Toby Hanson respectively batted .327 and .301, while senior outfielder Jordan Smith posted a .296 clip.
With junior Luke Petterson and senior Matt Stemper set to take on everyday roles at second base and catcher, in limited opportunities they showed they could swim and not sink. Petterson picked up 27 hits in 96 at-bats, putting together a .281-season. Stemper hit six doubles and a home run in 30 games, sporting a respectable .272 average.
Add everything up and Minnesota has the star power and steady anchor in the rotation, quality starters at the plate returning paired with a few players ready to take on a bigger role after showing flashes in previous short stints.
Is it enough to win another Big Ten title? Time will tell. But if even if Minnesota isn’t the hunted, if they sneak up on anyone again, shame on them.
“With all of the preseason stuff that’s came out, we still have the underdog vibe,” said Toby Anderson. “A lot of teams that win the Big Ten have the target on their back, but we’ve been picked to finish anywhere from seventh to third. It’s a lot of the same feeling we had last year.”
“We’ll be in the thick of the Big Ten race, and I’m looking forward to it,” the Hall of Fame coach said. “They experienced some success last year and I think they want to stay at that level.”
The other Anderson, a six-foot-five right-hander with 74 career appearances agrees.
“We’re hungry, we want to prove people wrong.”
A look at the opponent: UC Irvine
The University of California-Irvine welcomes the University of Minnesota to town to begin the 2017 season with a three-game series. Following a 31-25 2016 campaign, the Anteaters are looking to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first team since reaching the College World Series in 2014.
Preseason All-American Keston Hiura will lead Mike Gillespie’s club, which was picked to finish fifth in the Big West by conference coaches. Hiura was a member of USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team, after batting .358 with 12 doubles and seven home runs as a sophomore in 2016. Hirua will be limited to DH duties to start the season due to a partial tear in his elbow. Providing support for Hirua at the plate will be senior shortstop Mikey Duarte. Duarte missed the 2016 season with an elbow injury but was a standout in his last action. An All-Big West selection in 2015, Duarte batted .345 with 17 doubles, leading the conference with 78 hits.
On the mound, junior left-handed pitcher Cameron Bishop will be atop Irvine’s rotation. Bishop went 5-5 over 15 starts ago, posting a 4.61 ERA. In 70.1 innings, Bishop struck out 79 batters against 33 walks. At the back of the bullpen, senior right-hander Calvin Faucher looks to pick up where he left off at the end of a strong 2016 season. Faucher led Irvine with eight saves, while pitching to the tune of a .71 ERA in 25.1 innings.
Freshman right-handed pitcher Andre Pallante will take the ball to start game two, before junior right-handed pitcher, Louis Raymond, a transfer from Cuesta College, starts the weekend finale.
Irvine holds a 5-2 series edge over Minnesota, most recently sweeping the Gophers in a three-game set, May 1-3, 2015 in Minneapolis. The meeting between Gillespie and Minnesota’s John Anderson will feature two Hall of Fame coaches, both with more than 1,000 wins in their career.
No time to ease into to
Penn State opens the season at consensus preseason #1 TCU, completing the TCU-half of the home-and-home agreement. Last year, the Nittany Lions welcomed the Horned Frogs to State College for three games, May 6-7. On their way to a third consecutive College World Series appearance, TCU swept the weekend series, taking the three games by scores of 6-2, 5-4 and 9-5.
Finishing in a tie for third last year, TCU returns their entire rotation, their closer and eight of nine starters, including preseason All-Americans Luken Baker, Elliott Barzilli and Evan Skoug. The trio was also named to USA Baseball’s Golden Spikes Watch List.
But Penn State returns quite a bit as well, and Rob Cooper’s club is ready to see if the program’s momentum will continue forward. The Nittany Lions also return their entire weekend, Sal Biasi, Taylor Lehman and Justin Hagenman set to take the ball against TCU. Last year’s meeting was the first between the two, as Penn State looks to build off of the program’s first winning season since 2012, with a big win to start the 2017 campaign.
Penn State isn’t the lone team to start the year against a 2016 College World Series participant.
Rutgers travels to Miami for three games against the Hurricane this season, Miami sporting a #18 ranking in the NCBWA preseason poll.
With the completion of the Fred Hill Training Complex, Rutgers feels they’re more ready than ever to open a season. The new training complex features a fully turfed regulation-sized infield, while big enough to feature six drop-down batting cages/pitching tunnels.
Coaches around the conference experience Joe Litterio’s team to continue to improve as the Scarlet Knights are now in their third season in the Big Ten. The strength of Rutgers is their lineup, where sophomore center fielder Jawuan Harris looks to continue to establish himself as a force in college baseball.
A two-sport standout, Harris led Rutgers football in receiving yards and touchdown receptions in 2016, this after leading the Big Ten with 37 stolen bases last year. Rutgers played Miami close last year but were ultimately swept, falling 4-1, 2-0 and 8-1.
Two Big Ten teams will open the season participating in tournaments.
The Big Ten’s lone ranked team in the NCBWA, #25 Maryland will be joined by #8 Louisville, Ball State and Alabama State in Clearwater, Fla., playing in the Clearwater Tournament at Spectrum Field, spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Ohio State will play in the Sunshine State Classic Series in Osceola County, Fla, opening and closing the weekend with games against Kansas State, taking on Delaware and Pitt in-between.
Illinois is a part of a three-team field at the Lamar Cardinal Classic. Opening the season with two games against Milwaukee before playing host Lamar Saturday and Sunday.
The rest of the conference will play series to being the season, with Iowa traveling to Tampa to play at South Florida. Michigan opens with four in Port St. Lucie against Seton Hall. Michigan State opens a new season at Abilene Christian, while a three-game set welcomes Northwestern at Arizona State.
What to watch for
It wouldn’t be the college baseball season if Big Ten teams weren’t forced to watch the radar and play the waiting game. What is unusual is the havoc-causing weather is in parts west, not the Midwest, forcing teams opening the season in Arizona and California to prepare for alternate plans. A heavy rain system hitting the Pacific coast in southern California will move into Arizona on Saturday.
Already, Indiana has scrapped it’s Saturday game with Duke, in Surprise, adding a Friday game with Oregon State to their originally scheduled Friday contest against Gonzaga. The weekend will now see Indiana play both teams twice, wrapping up their stay in Surprise with a Sunday game against Gonzaga and Monday matinee against Oregon State.
Also opening the season in Arizona is Northwestern, taking on Arizona State for four games. Due to the expected inclement weather, Northwestern will open the season with a Friday doubleheader against the host Sun Devils, to be followed by its originally scheduled Saturday day. The two schools have left Sunday open to play, if Saturday’s game does not get in.
A third Big Ten team was forced to juggle its weekend due to rain in the desert. Nebraska’s four-game series with UC Riverside will now see a Friday doubleheader, instead of Saturday twinbill.
As of 9 a.m. Eastern, Minnesota’s three-game set at UC Irvine will play out as scheduled, single games Friday evening, Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. The forecast calls for 100% rain throughout Orange County, leaving the prospect of the Gophers kicking off their title defense on Friday unlikely.
A new era for Purdue Baseball
Outside of John Anderson and his Minnesota Gophers, there hasn’t been a coach more synonymous with his program than former Purdue head coach Doug Schreiber. A Boilermaker in the 1980s, Schreiber led his alma mater for 18 seasons, building the Boilermaker program up to its 2012 high, when the program won its first Big Ten championship in 103 years. Purdue was a consistent force in the Big Ten in the mid-2000s, but have fallen on tough times since its 2012 Gary Regional hosting team.
Now, Mark Wasikowski is tasked to bring back promise to West Lafayette. As Purdue takes on Texas State for four games in Wasikowski’s head coaching debut, the Boilermakers have 15 new players on its 28-man travel roster. However, one of the returning players is junior right-handed pitcher Tanner Andrews, who will open the season on the mound for Purdue for a second consecutive season.
With more than half the travel roster newcomers to the Purdue program, and the team playing four games versus a single opponent in the opening weekend for the first time since 1987, Wasikowski will quickly have an ability to discern what he has with the Boilermakers and start to form the program to his liking.
Freshmen pitching debuts
Around the Big Ten, several highly-touted freshmen will make their collegiate debuts, most notably a handful of pitchers on the mound.
Illinois right-handed pitcher Ty Weber will wrap up the weekend on the mound for the Illini, the freshman set to toe the rubber against Lamar on Sunday. Indiana left-handed pitcher Andrew Saalfrank will debut against Gonzaga on Saturday. Minnesota will send freshman right-handed pitcher Ben Schulze to the mound in their second game versus Irvine. Nebraska will trot out rookie Paul Tillotson on Saturday against UC Riverside, while Northwestern will have two freshmen in their opening weekend rotation, righty Hank Christie and southpaw Matt Gannon debuting in games two and game three against Arizona State.