U baseball to open Big Ten season

Sarah Mitchell

The Gophers’ gloves might be their saving grace this weekend, as the 30th-ranked Minnesota baseball team opens the Big Ten season at Purdue. A leak-proof defense was the team’s preseason mainstay while the batting lineup was altered and the pitching staff was ailing.
In Minnesota’s non-conference victories, 13 of which were recorded at the Metrodome, the Gophers (16-6) committed just 12 errors on their way to a .980 fielding percentage. But turf and a controlled-climate stadium don’t exist in West Lafayette, Ind., and the transition concerns Gophers coach John Anderson.
“We’ve played outstanding defense in the Dome,” Anderson said. “Now it’s time to see if it will carry over. I think the series will come down to defense.”
Purdue hasn’t relied on any part of its game. With a 10-11 record, the Boilermakers aren’t exactly where first-year head coach Doug Schreiber would like his team to be. But he said Purdue has shown improvement since getting off to a 2-9 start.
“We obviously have a lot of respect for Minnesota,” Schreiber said. “On paper they’re favored. But it’s exciting for our kids to open the season against the team that is picked to win the Big Ten. There’s no hiding behind anything.”
A program more concerned with allegations that former coach Steve Green struck Boilermakers pitcher Jeremy Ballard, Purdue opened the conference against Minnesota last year and left the Metrodome with a four-game split under the direction of interim coach Bob Shepherd.
Schreiber said the latest shift in coaching philosophy could make for similar results.
“There’s a definite feeling-out period,” Schreiber said. “We’ve made a lot of adjustments and still plan on contending this season.”
Adapting has been the theme of the Gophers bullpen. For the second consecutive season, Minnesota is forced to open league action without its top hurler.
With Baseball America’s preseason Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Ben Birk on the shelf, senior Brad Pautz has taken over the No. 1 spot in the starting rotation. A sixth-round draft pick a year ago, Pautz (3-1) leads the pitching staff with seven starts and 39.0 innings. The right-hander brings a 4.38 ERA with 30 strikeouts and eight walks to the mound on Friday.
Juniors Dan McGrath and Kelly Werner (3-0) are scheduled to split Saturday’s doubleheader. McGrath will be more reliant on the bullpen than Werner. The Australian southpaw first made his debut on March 14 against Northern Illinois and because of the late return is on a strict pitch count.
“Everyone’s going to have to pitch a little bit more and step it up,” Anderson said. “Sunday’s starter will just depend on who’s rested in the bullpen.”
The Boilermakers’ starting rotation is set, and sophomore Austin Bilke could help to boost the Gophers’ hefty .358 batting average. The right-hander, who has amassed a 6.67 ERA in 27 innings this season, will get the call on Saturday. Unlike Minnesota, however, Schreiber has the luxury of an intact pitching staff.
“It looks like everybody is healthy,” Schreiber said. “When it comes to our bullpen it’s basically anybody and everybody.”
Experimentation might be the key to the Boilermakers’ success this season. While he doesn’t doubt his team’s ability, Schreiber said this weekend’s outcome might depend on more than just defense.
“(Anderson’s) got a lot of talent,” Schreiber said. “He’s got a lot of older players and the new ones have filled in. He’s got the mix.”