Gophers continue hot streak, dominate Spartans

Minnesota commited just two errors all weekend in its sweep of Michigan State.

by Paul Cordes

Despite a left-handed-hitting heavy lineup, the Minnesota baseball team was able to blow by Michigan State’s three left-handed starting pitchers and sweep the Spartans in four games to get out to its best start since 1976.

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when: 6:30 p.m. Friday
where: Champaign, Ill.

The Gophers opened the series with a 3-2 win before sweeping the Saturday doubleheader with 9-2 and 5-4 victories. They then finished the series off with a 12-2 shellacking of Michigan State in the series finale.

Coach John Anderson said earlier in the week, his team would need to throw more strikes and swing the bat well in order to win, and his players apparently got the memo.

Minnesota’s pitching staff gave up 18 walks last weekend against Iowa, but cut that number in half this weekend and allowed just nine walks in 32 innings of work.

That’s an improvement Anderson was very happy to see this weekend.

“I thought last week was an aberration to be honest with you. I think the layoff hurt pitchers more than hitters,” he said. “I thought this was a good sign to pitch how we have been all year.”

Sophomore right-hander Tom Buske and senior left-hander Marcus McKenzie were prime examples of what throwing strikes can do.

Both starters found success in their outings, Buske (2-0) on Friday and McKenzie in game two Saturday by throwing a lot of strikes and letting their defense take care of the rest.

The two combined for just three strikeouts but only allowed 10 hits in 13 and two-thirds innings of work against the Spartans (15-17 overall, 6-9 Big Ten) and got a lot of solid defense behind them.

McKenzie, whose 6-0 record makes for the best start for a Minnesota pitcher since 1998, said both he and Buske are very similar in the way they pitch, and he paid special attention to Buske’s outing Friday and picked up enough things to be successful Saturday afternoon.

“I’m not a strike-out pitcher, and I’ve struggled a little in my last couple outings by falling behind in the count,” McKenzie said. “But today I went out and just tried to get it out over the plate and let my guys make plays and it worked out.”

And the Gophers’ defense was certainly behind its hurlers as they made just two errors and put together a .984 fielding percentage for the series.

And not content with just pitching and fielding, Minnesota completed the trifecta by opening up the floodgates at the plate.

The Gophers (26-7, 9-2) used a big inning in three of their four games to capture some momentum, which turned out to be enough for three wins.

Senior left fielder Mike Mee was at the heart of those big innings both Saturday and Sunday. His bases-loaded, three-RBI double in game one on Saturday was part of a six-run fifth inning that deflated the Spartans’ sails after they pulled to within one in the top half of the inning.

Minnesota’s momentum carried into the first inning of game two of the doubleheader as the Gophers put up five runs in the first inning, which is all it would need to grab the victory.

And once again Mee came through big in Minnesota’s six-run inning Sunday. In the series finale, which was moved to the Metrodome in a proactive action that paid off after storms moved into the area, Mee hit a three-run home run as the Gophers shelled a stretched Michigan State pitching staff.

“Any time you can get a big inning it’s going to be important,” said Mee, who finished 10-for-16 with eight RBIs in the series. “Getting three to five runs in an inning really helps to get momentum and I think it really helped carry that momentum throughout the weekend.”

But it wasn’t just Mee who was responsible for Minnesota’s scoring barrage.

Ten different Gophers hitters recorded at least one RBI with Mee’s eight leading the way and sophomore center fielder Matt Nohelty not far behind with five.

Anderson made several changes to his lineup, which usually includes four left-handed hitters, to avoid the lefty-lefty matchups.

It seemed to have worked out for Minnesota as the Gophers outscored Michigan State 29-10 over the weekend.

“Our greatest strength is our depth,” Anderson said. “I played a lot of people and made some different lineups, so we were able to utilize our position-player lineup to help us with the series.”