Gophers among many for Big Ten title

by Aaron Blake

Minnesota baseball center fielder Sam Steidl describes the Big Ten this year as a “rat race.”

But, in fact, it’s more like a Gophers-Buckeyes-Lions-and-Wolverines race – oh, my.

There are more teams in the Big Ten title mix this year than in recent years, and the final weeks of the season are shaping up to be more exciting than they have been for a while.

The tied-for-first Gophers (27-16, 13-7 Big Ten) begin the stretch run this weekend as tied-for-last Iowa comes to town in the first of three May series that will close out the regular season.

Minnesota plays the Hawkeyes (14-28, 7-13) at 6:30 p.m. Friday, twice starting at 2 p.m. Saturday and once more at 1 p.m. Sunday. All games are at Siebert Field.

“If you do the things you need to do in February, March and April, you put yourself in a position where May can be the difference month,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “But you’ve really got to do a lot of things prior to this to have a chance.”

Minnesota has put itself in a position to win its third-straight regular season crown. But the Gophers are just one of four teams within a game of one another at the top of the standings.

Ohio State and Penn State have identical records to Minnesota’s, and Michigan is lurking one game back at 12-8.

“It’s pretty even, up and down the line,” left fielder Tony Leseman said. “I think it’ll just come down to which teams can have timely hitting and throw strikes.”

The Gophers didn’t have to deal with much of a pennant race last season when they started the conference season 11-0 and won the league by five games.

But Steidl, a senior, sees the race as something that can help the young squad.

“Last year, we had a senior-dominated team,” he said. “This year, we have a lot of young players. I think it’s going to benefit them in the future, knowing that it’s not handed to you each year.”

Steidl and Anderson both liken the clogged race to the 2001 season – the last time the team didn’t win the regular-season title.

That year, Ohio State, Purdue and Minnesota all finished within a game of each other, and the Buckeyes won the league by sweeping four games from the Gophers on the final weekend of the regular season.

Minnesota will likely face another crucial series when it takes on the Buckeyes in the last weekend of this season. And neither Leseman nor Steidl would be surprised if that series determines the title, despite the emergences of Penn State and Michigan.

But they’re not getting ahead of themselves, and they realize this weekend is a good opportunity to take three or four games from a weaker team.

Besides, every game this month is important.

“May is the difference month,” Anderson said, “no question about it.”