Pitchers’ fortunes change this season

by Tim Klobuchar

The variety of bad weather that descended upon Minneapolis this weekend might have caused the cancellation of the last two games of the Minnesota-Michigan series, but the Gophers still learned more about its top two starting pitchers.
And in some ways, more than they probably wanted to know. The two games that were played illustrated the divergent fortunes of Mike Diebolt and Justin Pederson.
What the Gophers like is Diebolt’s transformation from an unproven pitcher with a 7.71 career earned run average to staff ace. What’s troubling to them is Pederson’s slide from staff ace to a pitcher who struggles to make it out of the early innings.
Diebolt and Pederson had been traveling in opposite directions for a while, but during the beginning of the Big Ten season they’ve accelerated, and have now passed each other.
Diebolt, a senior left-hander, threw a four-hit shutout last weekend against Purdue, and recovered from a rough beginning Friday night to throw a seven-hit complete game in Minnesota’s 7-5 victory over Michigan.
Pederson, a senior right-hander, battled through a subpar outing against Purdue but still got the win. On Saturday, however, Pederson lasted just an inning and one-third, his shortest start of the season by far. The Gophers lost 10-5.
Diebolt, now 4-2 on the year with a 2.96 ERA, said after both the Purdue and Michigan games that he didn’t have his best stuff. Michigan hit him hard early, piling up six hits and five runs in the first four innings.
After that, however, he was almost invincible, giving up just one hit and two walks the rest of the way. Diebolt is capable of hitting 90 miles per hour on the radar gun, but he said he adjusted by throwing his off-speed pitches more effectively.
Diebolt mixed up his pitches more, but none of that would have mattered if he didn’t throw them for strikes. He consistently got ahead of hitters from the fifth inning on, and threw his pitches where he wanted.
“I left quite a few pitches up there early,” Diebolt admitted. “Luckily, I kept them down a little more in the later innings. If I kept throwing like I did in the first four or five innings, I would’ve been out of there in a hurry.”
Pederson had a similar game against Purdue a week ago. He was wild, walking six in seven innings, but after that game, both head coach John Anderson and pitching coach Mike Dee talked positively about Pederson’s competitiveness that helped keep the Gophers in a game they eventually won 8-5.
On Saturday, Pederson again didn’t have command, but this time he didn’t have time to fight through it, either. He dropped to 2-3, and his ERA inflated to 5.62. Before this year his career numbers were 17-8 and 4.32.
“The biggest difference between Justin and Mike is that Mike’s more aggressive going after hitters,” Gophers catcher Bryan Guse said. “He’s putting guys away with two strikes, and Justin’s getting behind in the count.”
Pederson said his biggest problem right now is locating his fastball. That pitch is obviously important to every pitcher, but especially to Pederson, who can overpower hitters with a 90-plus heater. It’s the toughest stretch he’s ever gone through in his career, but he’s still confident he’ll return to form.
“There’s no question it’s going to come around,” Pederson said after Saturday’s game. He sat alone on the deserted right side of the dugout and watched the rain fall on the blue infield tarp. “I know I will, the question is when.”
Still, Pederson admits that his problems can’t be traced to a flaw in his mechanics. They’re in his head.
“Everyone I talk to gives me advice,” he said, cracking a smile. “I’m open for advice or criticism, but the main problem is going on upstairs. It’s not a physical thing. It’s more toward the mental side of the game. That’s why this is tough to deal with.”
Pederson’s ineffectiveness has been tempered somewhat by Diebolt’s emergence, as the Gophers have still gotten off to a 5-1 start in the Big Ten. That might help the Gophers, but it only serves to drive Pederson more.
“Most of the pressure I feel isn’t from others, it’s from myself,” he said. “I want to be that guy. I want to be the guy doing what Diebolt is doing.”