Baseball team hopes to stymie

by Sarah Mitchell

Illinois has all the components needed to build a dominant college baseball empire: a veteran defense, aggressive pitching, a productive offense and a head coach who has rarely uttered the word defeat in his career.
To some baseball fans, it might seem unfair that one team could have such an advantage over the rest of the field, so mentioning the word bonus is going to sound unjust. But Illinois does have a bonus — a favorable schedule.
The Big Ten leading Illini are 13-1 when playing at home, which is where the team will spend a majority of its season. The team also has the benefit of playing some of the conference’s stronger teams in its own ballpark.
Heading into this weekend’s four-game series against Illinois, the Gophers know they have no margin for error if they hope to shatter Illinois’ dominance.
Distracting the hometown team is vital to a series win. Center fielder Mike Arlt said Minnesota must stay confident if the team is to succeed.
“Taking advantage of their mistakes is key because if they are not on, you can get all over them and get them into a state of panic,” Arlt said. “That would give us the advantage for the rest of the series.”
Besides concentrating on Illinois’ execution, the Gophers must focus on their own game plan. A lack of extra base hits was the culprit in Minnesota’s series loss at Michigan last weekend. Arlt said the offense struggled because of bad timing.
“I don’t know if we hit the ball all that terribly last weekend,” Arlt said. “They made a lot of good plays, and we hit a lot of balls at people.”
Arlt added that the team has worked on tuning up its offense for the weekend.
“We realize this is a pretty big series and a lot of guys have figured out the glitches in their swings,” Arlt said. “We have worked those out.”
Illinois Field might not seem like a hitter-friendly ballpark. A ball must travel 400 feet to clear the center field wall, compared to the shallow outfield of Minnesota’s Siebert Field, which is 380 to dead center.
But if Gophers hitters improve their slugging percentage this weekend, there might be an accomplice — the wind.
“The park there is kind of known for home runs. The wind blows dead out,” the Gophers’ Rick Brosseau said. “I think the pitchers will have trouble … because the park is known for home runs.”
Illinois’ 43 home runs this season reflect the wind’s presence. Although not all of them were hit in its ballpark, Illinois has out-homered Minnesota by 14.
“They are pretty much an offensive team,” Brosseau said. “They are a team that loads the bases.”
Despite Brosseau’s statement, Illinois does have pitching talent. Judging by Illinois’ staff, extra base hits might be hard to come by for the Gophers. The team’s three top starters are all seniors.
Brett Weber, who leads the starters with a 2.98 earned run average, takes the mound Friday looking to improve on his 6-2 record. Through 12 appearances, the senior has struck out 59 batters and walked 18.
However, one Gopher is not shying away from the challenge. Arlt, who faced Weber during the summer, knows the pitcher better than any scouting report.
“Weber throws pretty good. He’s got a lot of movement,” Arlt said. “He’s a good pitcher and he will give us a good challenge if he pitches Friday.
“But we are up to it.”