No. 3 Wolverines present tough task for hopeful Gophers

Michigan will show Minnesota one of the nation’s toughest pitching tandems.

Marco LaNave

The Gophers softball team will play its first outdoor home series of the season against a team that has never lost in MinnesotaâÄôs home stadium. A learning opportunity is one way to look at this weekendâÄôs matchup with two-time defending conference champion Michigan, which is ranked third in the latest ESPN.com/USA Softball poll and hasnâÄôt lost in Minneapolis since 1996, a stretch of 12 games. âÄúWe love it,âÄù co-head coach Lisa Bernstein said. âÄúYou go out there, and you take it one pitch at a time, and you keep learning with every opportunity. Just go out there and play ball.âÄù Michigan is a perfect 8-0 against the Gophers at Jane Sage Cowles Stadium, which will open its 11th season as the GophersâÄô home venue at 1 p.m. Saturday. âÄú[The Wolverines] have a tremendous coach and a tremendous program,âÄù Bernstein said. âÄúThey produce a quality productâĦ From top to bottom theyâÄôre impressive.âÄù The Wolverines have won 17 of the last 18 meetings between the two teams. MinnesotaâÄôs only victory in that span was Briana HassettâÄôs shutout on April 27, 2007 in Ann Arbor, Mich. The next day, the Wolverines gave the ball to freshman lefthander Nikki Nemitz , who earned the win that started MichiganâÄôs current six-game winning streak in the series. Nemitz, now a senior and the unanimous 2009 Big Ten pitcher of the year, has joined right-hander Jordan Taylor to create a formidable pitching duo that has made Michigan the conferenceâÄôs top pitching team for a third-straight season. Taylor (14-2, 1.17 earned-run average) and Nemitz (11-3, 1.85), are the primary reasons for MichiganâÄôs Big Ten-low .178 opponents batting average. Minnesota currently has the conferenceâÄôs lowest batting average (.225). But junior first baseman Malisa Barnes , who went 2-for-3 in her first game against Michigan two years ago but has just one hit in four games since, said sheâÄôs ready for the challenge. âÄúTheyâÄôre phenomenal pitchers, but IâÄôve held my own against them,âÄù she said. âÄúIâÄôm looking forward to seeing what IâÄôm capable of this year.âÄù The Gophers improved offensively against Michigan State left-hander Lauren Kramer over the course of two games last weekend. But theyâÄôll need to make quicker adjustments against Taylor and Nemitz, who alternated starts for the Wolverines last weekend. Though theyâÄôll be facing elite pitchers, the Gophers think they have a good one on their side in freshman Lacey Middlebrooks, who has all of their wins but has lost three-straight Big Ten starts. The Wolverines have a .301 team batting average and five everyday players hitting at least .329. They are led by first baseman Dorian Shaw, who has improved from a .253 average a year ago to hit a team-leading .361 so far this season. She is tied for the Big Ten lead with 11 home runs. âÄúWeâÄôve practiced knowing that everybody [on Michigan] is an aggressive hitter,âÄù said Middlebrooks, who is second to Taylor in the Big Ten in strikeouts. âÄúWe have to take a similar approach to it, just knowing their aggressiveness to the game.âÄù The Gophers faced top teams in their non-conference schedule, but they didnâÄôt score a run in two losses to then-No. 4 Georgia and No. 2 Arizona in early March. Middlebrooks allowed eight hits and six walks while throwing four wild pitches in a 7-0 loss to Georgia March 5. She said the experience of facing elite opponents taught her the importance of getting ahead of hitters. âÄúI found out that if I hit spots, weâÄôll get the ground balls we need and get the easy outs,âÄù Middlebrooks said. âÄú The Wolverines will enter Saturday afternoon having played just two days earlier, as WednesdayâÄôs doubleheader at Indiana was moved to Thursday afternoon. The Gophers donâÄôt expect that to affect a veteran Michigan team. Middlebrooks said the Gophers know their own mistakes will be magnified against the Wolverines. âÄúThe intensity is 10 times higher in practice,âÄù she said. âÄúYou know their history. You want to play up to what theyâÄôre going to play.âÄù