As the Gophers baseball team prepares for its Big Ten home opener against Michigan this weekend, it’s hard to forget what happened last season.
An eight-game win streak and a 6-2 conference record followed Minnesota to Michigan in 1998. The Wolverines and their 2-6 league record, on the other hand, weren’t meeting the program’s lofty expectations.
But somehow the two teams going in opposite directions traded places. Big Ten reality found Minnesota, and the Wolverines won the series three games to one.
“They’ve had our number,” junior Adam Horton said. “You can never underestimate them.”
An unruly Wolverines offense caused the problem last season. Michigan’s entire line-up from lead-off hitter Bobby Scales to the number-nine hitter, 5-foot-10 Scott Tousa, worked the Gophers pitching staff. Michigan went 41-for-116 at the plate.
Tousa and Scales are back this season. Scales remains lethal and is fourth on the team with a .340 batting average. The senior second baseman’s career-best 18-game hitting streak was snapped on Tuesday in his team’s defeat of Eastern Michigan.
The shortstop, Tousa, broke the Gophers last year, recording five hits in 10 at bats. Success at the plate, however, has been slow in coming this season.
“Tousa’s been a little streaky, but he’s starting to come around,” Wolverines assistant coach Matt Hyde said. “We’ve got a good lineup of guys.”
A lethargic offensive effort didn’t help the Gophers cause last year, either. Minnesota labored for 26 hits.
However, Minnesota (25-7 overall, 7-1 in the Big Ten) returns to Siebert Field this weekend a confident team. Three Gophers have batting averages over .400 (Aron Amundson at .420, and Robb Quinlan and Jack Hannahan at .424) bringing the team’s total to .324.
The Wolverines’ pitching staff hasn’t fared well lately and an ERA over 5.00 could be deadly against the Gophers’ bats. Add to that a nine-game win streak, and Minnesota looks set to sweep its consecutive league series.
“We’ve won seven out of eight but I think we’re capable of playing better than we did,” said Gophers reliever Bob DeWitt, talking about Minnesota’s conference road record. “We found ways to win even though we might not have played well.”
Like last season, the Wolverines (19-17, 3-5) enter the series achieving less than expected. Michigan is in the middle of conference standings after dropping three to Ohio State last weekend.
To its credit, Michigan hasn’t had a favorable schedule. For the third consecutive week, the Wolverines face a Big Ten first-place foe.
“This is the toughest stretch of our schedule,” said Hyde, who referred to games against Illinois, Ohio State and now conference co-leader Minnesota. “We’re not pushing the panic button, but every series is the season.”
For the Gophers, this weekend will prove to be a test. Michigan might be on a slide, but the Wolverines seem to pick themselves up when facing Minnesota.
“You never know what is going to happen between these two teams,” Hyde said. “We’ve always battled.”