Penn State baseball doesn’t fool U

by Tim Klobuchar

If players on the Gophers baseball team actually believe they’re playing the worst team in the Big Ten this weekend, they’re not letting on.
Chances are, past history has taught them that Penn State, 2-5 and in last place in the conference, is nowhere near that weak.
Minnesota, in first place in the conference at 5-1, travels to University Park, Pa., for a four-game series starting today.
Last year, the Lions got off to an abysmal 3-14-1 start, but steadily improved during Big Ten play, and ended up winning the conference regular season title. That start, when coupled with the strong finish, makes the Gophers wary of the Lions.
“They certainly still are very formidable,” Gophers assistant coach Rob Fornasiere said. “They’ve got a lot of players returning, and a lot of quality pitching returning. And my guess is, the longer the season goes on, the better they will play. I don’t see their record as any indication of what they’re capable of.”
The Lions took three of four from the Gophers last season at Siebert Field near the beginning of their resurgence. Minnesota head coach John Anderson remembers their aggressiveness, something that might be present again now that Penn State desperately needs a series win to remain in the hunt.
“A lot depends on whether you hit them on a weekend where they’re hot or not,” senior Bob Keeney said. “Michigan (which swept PSU two weeks ago) might have hit them on a week when they weren’t hot, so I’m sure they’ll be fighting to get at least two or three wins against us to get back in the race.”
Penn State has bludgeoned the ball so far this year, averaging 8.6 runs per game, over three more than last season. But the pitching staff has a collective 6.77 earned run average.
That’s what the Gophers know about the Lions. What they don’t know is the details of Beaver Park or anything else about the Penn State campus. They’ve never played there, something that might require a short adjustment period.
“We’ve never been there, so I don’t know what to expect, other than what I’ve heard,” Anderson said. “As far as the field conditions and what kind of ballpark we’re dealing with, I have no idea. In some ways that’s good, because you have no history, no memory of anything good or bad, especially the bad part.”
Then again, lately the Gophers are unfamiliar with playing on any surface that doesn’t have to be vacuumed. Their first home series was in the Metrodome, and they got just two games in against Michigan last weekend because of rain and snow on consecutive days. The weather kept them indoors, at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex, for practice this week.
“We’ve been in and out, back and forth, inside to outside,” Anderson said. “It’s been the history here that if you have good spring weather, you have good teams. It’s how you deal with all the adjustments, outdoors to indoors, all the things you can’t control. You’ve got to find a way to get yourself ready to play wherever you play and whenever you play.”
This series marks the beginning of a crucial, and most likely, tiring chunk of the Gophers’ schedule. They come back from Penn State on Sunday night, travel to Iowa State on Tuesday, host Creighton on Wednesday, and travel to Ohio State on Thursday for a four-game series with the second-place Buckeyes.
This is also the series Minnesota will unveil its new pitching rotation. Senior Justin Pederson, who began the year as the No. 1 starter, will start game four this weekend. Although he has been hit hard lately, he’s not a typical fourth starter.
Pederson will also be available to come on in relief for the first three games. He pulled similar double duty last season with success. Anderson is making the move because of Pederson’s struggles, but still believes the hard-throwing right-hander has the capability of helping the team more than before.
“The way he’s pitching right now, the fourth spot is probably a good spot for him,” Anderson said. “A lot of times, the fourth game decides the series, and I like my chances with him out there than somebody else’s fourth starter.”
What about Bob?
Keeney broke the big toe on his right foot when he fouled a pitch off it Friday against Michigan. He missed Saturday’s game, but was able to jog without much pain earlier this week. He will likely be able to play this weekend.
The toe injury is only the latest to sideline Keeney. He was limited to 40 (out of 56) games last season because of a back injury, which makes Keeney a little suspicious.
“I think there’s someone out there that has a doll with number 23 on it, poking needles in it or something,” he said.