A 41-win season and an NCAA regional appearance had Minnesota baseball fans giddy at the end of last season, but this season they may feel more anxious than anything.
The Gophers lost 16 players total this year, 11 from the senior class alone. This season the team will rely on last year’s role players to contribute on a regular basis.
“The biggest thing going into this year, everyone knows, is that we’re a very young team,” junior Nate Hanson said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys that are going to have to step in right away and help our team.”
Baseball America picked Minnesota to finish third behind Michigan and Ohio State, but all the preseason hype doesn’t have the Gophers worried.
“I see us battling for that top spot in the conference,” Hanson said. “Just like every year, it’s going to come down to the last couple weekends.”
Minnesota returns three of its top four hitters from last season with Hanson, junior Matt Nohelty and sophomore Derek McCallum. Each hit over .330 last season, with Hanson leading the team in home runs, runs batted in and total bases earned.
Hanson, a third baseman, and Nohelty, a center fielder, were selected to the preseason All-Big Ten team by Web site Rivals.com and Baseball America.
John Anderson enters his 27th year as head coach of the Gophers and has liked what he’s seen so far from this year’s squad.
“I really like the chemistry of our team. I’ve been really impressed how well the guys have connected,” Anderson said. “I’ve been impressed with how the older players have helped them (the younger players) fit in and feel comfortable.”
Team chemistry will play a significant role as Minnesota plans to try multiple people in various roles throughout the season to find the right mix.
“I think that’s kind of an ‘X’ factor,” McCallum said. “You can have all the talent in the world, but if nobody plays as a team it’s not going to work out. We’ve got great team chemistry and a good thing going here.”
Anderson said the team is still trying to find corner outfielders, a first baseman, and put together a bullpen.
“Last year our strength was our bullpen and our starting pitching was just OK,” Anderson said. “This year is probably going to start out with starting pitching as our strength.”
The Gophers have added junior college transfer Chauncey Handran to the roster, providing experience and depth to a rotation that returns only one senior.
Senior Dustin Brabender has the most experience from last year, as he started 14 games and ended the year with a 5-1 record. Junior Tom Buske made eight starts last year, and fellow junior Kyle Carr will make the move from bullpen to starting rotation this year.
Buske will get the opening day start against Mississippi in Friday’s game. Carr and Brabender will follow Saturday and Sunday on the mound for Minnesota, but after that the Gophers will rely on youth in the bullpen.
Freshman Seth Rosin may see some action early this season out of the pen as Anderson and his staff continues to assess the pitching staff. Sophomores Scott Matyas and Scott Fern, who were redshirted last year, return to the team and will find a role on the pitching staff.
“I’m confident we can put together a competitive pitching staff,” Anderson said. “Chauncey we recruited specifically because we wanted some experience with our pitching staff losing so many players.”
Sophomore Eric Decker will be lacing a different pair of cleats this spring, replacing football gloves for a baseball mitt. Decker got permission from football coach Tim Brewster to join the baseball team and will compete for an outfield position. Decker brings another left-handed option for the Gophers.
Although the roster has 14 upperclassmen, Anderson believes the players that have been in the program for multiple years have an opportunity to keep Minnesota near the top of the conference.
“We’re hoping the seniors can give us something their last year,” Anderson said. “They know how to play because they’ve been here for awhile.”