Getting stuck in the middle of Texas is hardly an ideal situation, regardless of the time of year. But these days Gophers baseball coach John Anderson finds Waco positively appealing.
Waco is one of 16 sites hosting a four-team NCAA regional this weekend. Minnesota (44-16) will be there, having earned a postseason at-large bid for the second straight year.
“For us it’s a place where we have no history,” Anderson said. “So it’s a fresh feeling.”
Joining the second-seeded Gophers are top-seeded Baylor (46-13), No. 3 Arizona (33-21) and No. 4 Eastern Illinois (32-12). Minnesota has Arizona — a team making its first postseason appearance since 1993 — as its first round opponent.
The Waco regional survivor draws the winner of the Wichita, Kan., regional next weekend in a best of three series, with the winner advancing to the College World Series June 11. No. 1 Wichita State, No. 2 Oklahoma State, No. 3 UCLA and No. 4 Oral Roberts are in that bracket.
The super regional system, which allowed for an expanded field from 48 teams to 64, is expected to treat the Gophers well.
“The way it’s set up, I would say we have a better-than-average chance of making it to Omaha (for the CWS),” Gophers infielder Matt Brosseau said. “This way you can use less pitching, and even less if you stay out of the loser’s bracket.”
For the Gophers, lack of pitching is a serious issue. Staff ace Ben Birk was shelved for the season before it began with an elbow injury and junior southpaw Dan McGrath (6-0) is on a similar path.
The Gophers starter missed last weekend’s Big Ten tournament with discomfort in his shoulder. Anderson said McGrath had an MRI and a steroid injection on Monday, but his services might be unavailable for postseason action.
“Danny’s status for this weekend is day-to-day,” Anderson said. “But he’s still making the trip.”
Senior Brad Pautz (8-3) and juniors Chadd Clarey (7-2) and Kelly Werner (6-2) are the remaining healthy hurlers in Minnesota’s starting rotation. Pautz is scheduled to start today and Clarey is the likely starter for the team’s second round game.
Pautz has a 5.24 ERA through a team-leading 91 innings, but will bring to the mound memories of six walks in Minnesota’s 12-9 Big Ten tournament opening round loss to Illinois.
The senior’s duties include tackling a young Arizona offense, paced by freshman right fielder Shelley Duncan. Duncan and consistent starting pitching, which tied Arizona for third in the Pac 10, makes the Wildcats an interesting first test for Minnesota.
“I think they’re similar to us talentwise,” Brosseau said. “We’re comparable teams.”
Having the last at-bat and more experience could also help Minnesota in its bid to stay in the winner’s bracket.
Two quick losses during last year’s regional in Palo Alto, Calif. — an 8-2 loss to Alabama and a 19-1 season-ending thud to Stanford — bodes well for Minnesota as it heads to Waco looking to extend its season into next weekend.
“I think they know what to expect this year. It was a disappointment how last season ended,” Anderson said. “Our team has faced adversity and I will be surprised if they don’t do well.”