Fall Notes: Minnesota

Program at a glance

Head coach: John Anderson, 38th year

2018 record: 44-15, 18-4, conference and tournament champions

Key departures: 1B/3B Micah Coffey (.278 AVG/.363 OBP/.409 SLG, 18 XBH, DH/OF Toby Hanson (.318/.398/.486, 18 2B), RHP Reggie Meyer 109 IP, 2.97 ERA, 8-4, 70 SO, 16 BB), 2B Luke Pettersen (.322/.406/.397, 13 2B, 13 SB), RHP Jackson Rose (31.2 IP, 1.99 ERA, 5-1, 30 SO), SS Terrin Vavra (.386/.455/.614, 13 2B, 4 3B, 10 HR, 59 RBI)

Key returners:  Soph. RHP Patrick Fredrickson (97 IP, 1.86 ERA, 9-0, 73 SO, .209 BAA), Jr. INF Jordan Kozicky (.271/.373/.422, 13 2B, 5 HR), Sr. C/1B Cole McDevitt (.271/.395/.452, 9 2B, 9 HR), Soph. RHP/OF Max Meyer (43.2 IP, 2.06 ERA, 16 SV, 54 SO, .163 BAA), Sr. OF Ben Mezzenga (.383/.466/.447, 12 SB), Jr. C Eli Wilson (.289/.379/.428, 9 2B, 5 HR)

Notable newcomers: Fr. INF Zack Raabe, Fr. C Chase Stanke, Fr. INF Andrew Wilhite

2018 in review

Minnesota’s 2018 season is among the top three seasons in the Big Ten over the last decade, perhaps even of this millennium. An 18-4 conference mark gave the Gophers their second Big Ten championship in three years, the program’s 11th under head coach John Anderson, before sweeping the field in the Big Ten Tournament to capture the program’s Big Ten-leading 10th tournament title.

The championship in Omaha helped Minnesota earn the right to host a regional for the first time in 17 years. Continuing their stellar play, the Gophers turned away all comers in the Minneapolis Regional, to advance to super regional play for the first time in school history. A return trip to Omaha fell two wins shy, as eventual national champion Oregon State won both games to win the Corvallis Super Regional to advance to the College World Series.

Finishing one step short of college baseball’s final destination, when the dust settled on Minnesota’s run, a retrospect shows a combination of steady seniors, a standout junior, and wunderkind freshmen help make up a deep Gopher roster.

After missing the Big Ten Tournament in 2015, played at nearby Target Field, a group of freshmen would go on and change the trajectory of the program, and end up just one 2017 conference win shy of closing their career with three consecutive Big Ten championships. Outfielder Alex Boxwell, third baseman Micah Coffey,  first baseman/DH Toby Hanson, and second baseman Luke Pettersen helped establish a championship culture in the Gopher locker room. The quartet were steady performers and lineup stalwarts since the 2016 season, and saw Terrin Vavra put together an All-American seasons to provide the team with a star at the plate. The best two-way position player in the Big Ten, Vavra provided a sensational glove at baseball’s premier defensive position, while leading the Gophers with a .386, and collecting a team best 27 extra-base hits, to drive in 59 runs.

With upperclassmen leading the way at the plate, a pair of freshmen captured the attention of all of college baseball in spearheading Minnesota’s pitching staff. 

Becoming the first freshman to be named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, Patrick Fredrickson’s emergence as a viable starter coincided with the Gophers taking off and never looking back. Earning his first start during Minnesota’s series at TCU, Fredrickson would go on to start 14 more contests, before finishing the year with a spotless 9-0 record. Minnesota entered the series at TCU with a 12-7 record, before going 25-6 to close the regular season. Keying that success was Fredrickson solidifying the Saturday role in the rotation, behind junior right-hander Reggie Meyer, who provided Minnesota what they needed as the rotation’s ace, pitching 109 innings to a 2.97 ERA, to give pitching coach Ty McDevitt a potent 1-2 punch.

At the back of Minnesota’s bullpen, right-hander Max Meyer would be the team’s second freshman pitcher to make history. Meyer’s 16 saves tied a program record and helped him earn All-America honors alongside Fredrickson and Vavra. And like Reggie Meyer was instrument in putting Fredrickson in position to win a weekend series, senior setup man Jackson Rose played a significant role in getting the ball to Max Meyer with a lead in, allowing just eight earned runs in 31.2 innings.

Meyer was also a part of a noteworthy offseason for the Gophers. The freshman, blessed with a 95-MPH fastball and a devastating slider, was picked to play on USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Meyer led a team made up of some of the nation’s best pitchers in strikeouts and saves.

But the most significant offseason news was the retirement of longtime assistant coach Rob Fornasiere. For 33 years Fornasiere was on Anderson’s staff, serving as assistant head coach, recruiting coordinator and third base coach, as he and Anderson former the country’s longest tenured coaching duo. Three championships during a 44-15 season was a fitting way for Fornasiere to go out.

Fall notes

Even if Minnesota wasn’t coming off of its best season in a generation, the fall was going to be a little different without Fornasiere. In fact, Anderson said it was a very different fall without his long-time assistant. No longer was there the ability to anticipate the thoughts and decisions from his top assistant, that the long-standing system and ways of doing things would be shaken. But as Ty McDevitt moved into a full-time role after serving as the team’s pitching coach from the volunteer position, Minnesota hired Brandon Hunt to the latter role, as good of a fit as any, said Anderson. The Gopher head coach spoke to Hunt, a former head coach at Division II Upper Iowa University, having a teacher’s mindset, like Fornasiere, and their specific areas of expertise are similar.

While there hasn’t been any championship hangover in Anderson’s eyes, just the continuation of players wanting to compete and perform at their best to live up to expectations, what was evident is the change that’s set to take place with the type of offense seen out of Minnesota this year. With last year’s offensive outfit a veteran group, one with a remarkable ability to have good at-bat after good at-bat, Anderson said the makeup of this year’s roster will likely have the team play with more action, opposed to letting the team 1-9 just sit back and hit, the way they did in leading the Big Ten with a .300 average, or utilize the bunt as often, Minnesota’s 51 sacrifice hits also led the Big Ten.

“A point of emphasis was to steal more bases, or attempt to, to be able to put more pressure on opposing pitchers,” Anderson said, adding throughout the fall players had the ability to run on there own, knowing it’ll be a big factor in the team’s success this year.

One player in particular the Minnesota staff worked extensively with on running was Max Meyer. A year ago, Meyer was viewed as a two-way player, and he did end up with 30 at-bats. But with a deep lineup and Meyer emerging on the mound the way he did, it wasn’t long that he became a pitcher-only for his freshman season. This year, after taking the fall off from pitching with his extended work load over the summer with USA Baseball, Meyer saw extensive action in the outfield and at the plate. Anderson says Meyer showed very well this fall at the plate, possessing the ability to definitely help the team offensively. Although he was a shortstop in high school, with how valuable his arm is, Meyer will be deployed to the outfield, likely left field, when not DHing, if he is in the batting order. And, for his use on the mound, it’ll be a return to the back of the bullpen, no immediate plans to try him as a starter.

“It’s hard to find someone that can do what he does at the end of the game,” Anderson said of Meyer, as they prepare him to be the team’s closer again. “We like the ability of having him impact potentially two games in a weekend opposed to one.”

On continuing their established roles, Anderson and staff are also leaning to keeping Fredrickson in his Saturday role. Not that the sophomore isn’t capable of becoming the weekend’s leading man, but Minnesota has an abundance of riches on the mound, and if it’s not broken why try to fix it?

Fredrickson and Meyer are a part of a pitching-heavy sophomore class that saw four other freshman, Joshua Culliver, Ryan Duffy, Bubba Horton and Sam Thoresen combine to pitch 83 innings. Culliver made four starts, en route to posting a 3.38 ERA in 26.2 innings, and looks to be an option to fill out the rotation with Fredrickson, engaged in a good competition with Horton, senior left-handed pitcher Nick Lackney, senior right-hander Jake Stevenson and Thoresen.

Any odd men out of the rotation will help make a deep bullpen.  Redshirt sophomore right-handed pitcher Nolan Burchill is working his way back from an elbow injury which shortened his 2017 season after 27.2 innings as mid-week starter. Minnesota has worked to shorten his throwing motion this fall. And another third-year player, Brett Schulze, is back after excelling in a long-relief role last year, going 9-0 with a 2.09 ERA, pitching 51.2 innings in 22 relief appearances.

Where a lot of known commodities will take the mound, there will be less established players stepping into the batter’s boxes, as Minnesota needs to replace three infielders, an outfielder and DH. But there are more at-bats returning than one may think.

Outfielder Ben Mezzenga is the top returning Big Ten hitter, after batting .383 last year. Junior Jordan Kozicky is capable of playing in the outfield, along with second, shortstop and third base. Senior first baseman Cole McDevitt returns, as does junior catcher Eli Wilson, who is shaping into a good draft prospect with a solid all-around game. Outfielder Riley Smith is also back. The quintet totaled 830 at-bats a year ago.

One player to keep an eye to fill a void is senior Eduardo Estrada. The outfielder has shown flashes in the past, most notably his go-ahead grand slam against Indiana in the 2017 Big Ten Tournament, but yet to put it all together. Anderson said he saw a different player in Estrada this fall, a player who realizes this is his last go, more mature.

And as far as newcomers go, Andrew Wilhite opened the eyes of Anderson and others this fall, leading another impressive crop of freshmen, this time position player-heavy. Wilhite is an exceptional athlete with good bat speed, and an approach and readiness at the plate that’s more advanced than typical for a freshman. Wilhite has the ability to play in the outfield, at second or third base, giving Minnesota a player with versatility that helps maintain lineup flexibility which has been a staple of the Gophers over the last three seasons. Freshman catcher Chase Stanke showed a good arm and receiving skills, ready to provide depth behind Wilson. Up the middle, Zack Raabe, son of former Gopher All-American Brian Raabe, doesn’t wow you with tools, but just find ways to make plays and does what’s necessary to win games, Anderson said.

The trio of talented freshman, along with star sophomore arms and the returning veterans ready to take on a bigger role, will be tested early and often this year. The Gophers have weekend series at Dallas Baptist, N.C State and Long Beach, host Oklahoma and participate in two tough neutral site tournaments, where they will see Oregon State in both.

“If you want a strong program, to play at a championship level, you have to get out and get after it,” Anderson said of the tough schedule awaiting the Gophers. “We’re not going to dodge anybody.”

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