Snow still lingers on the ground, but the baseball season opens tonight at the Metrodome for the Gophers’ 26th-ranked baseball team.
The highest-ranked Big Ten team takes to the field in the Galyan’s Gopher Pro-Alumni game, an annual event featuring former Gophers standouts against the current Minnesota team.
“It’s a fun way to get the season started,” Gophers reliever Kurt Haring said. “We don’t have to scout the other team, but it tells us where we are.”
Any scouting of the opposing team would show that two usual por-alumni names are missing from the lineup. Former Twins Paul Molitor and Denny Neagle won’t play.
Recently retired from the Twins, Molitor will still attend the game, but has been designated as general manager.
“He wanted to attend and be a part of it because he thinks it’s a special time of the year for him, and he likes to stay connected with the rest of the players, both professionally on an off our team,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “He wants to be on hand and has actually changed a couple of things to be here, I understand. I think that speaks well for Paul.”
Unlike Molitor, Neagle will not be in the ballpark. Neagle is receiving an award from the Governor of Maryland.
“He’s from the Baltimore area originally,” Anderson said. “The award is for his work with the Girls and Boys Club, so he has a conflict and regrets not being able to be here.”
The remainder of the pro-alumni lineup remains intact, much like that of the 1999 Gophers team. Minnesota returns seven position players, losing its two corner outfielders from last season — Mark Gruebner, who signed with the Expos, and Craig Selander, who signed with the Twins.
More than on defense, Minnesota has to replace the pair’s power on offense. Gruebner and Selander provided run production for the Gophers, batting third and fourth.
“Robb Quinlan is probably more concerned than any of us because we’re going to have to find some people to protect him in the lineup or he’s not going to get anything to hit,” Anderson said.
The Gophers pitching staff also resembles last year’s team, with the exception of first-year coach Todd Oakes. All but two members of the Minnesota bullpen will return, which has Anderson feeling confident.
“It appears on paper that this may be the best pitching staff that we’ve accumulated here at the University in my 18 years, so I am optimistic with that part of our team,” Anderson said.
Minnesota’s top pitcher, left-hander Ben Birk, is back for his third season. Birk recorded a 0.34 ERA in Big Ten play last year.
Brad Pautz and Dan McGrath will join Birk in the starting rotation. Pautz was a sixth-round pick of the Twins last year while the southpaw McGrath returns after going 9-3 last year.
“We’re optimistic if we stay healthy that we may have a chance to have a pretty special pitching staff,” Anderson said. “But they did lead the Big Ten in ERA and were 25th nationally in team ERA. So there is some experience and some quality coming back. If the coaches don’t screw them up, we should be okay.”
As the Gophers start their season tonight, the biggest problem the pitching staff faces is pre-season sore arms. Several of the pitchers are not expected to throw, but should return in time for the team’s next game, a Feb. 14 bout with St. Cloud State at the Metrodome.
“Right now a lot of us have sore arms,” Harring said. “But we should all be okay.”