New foe vies to bust Gophers’ title streak

Illinois has replaced Ohio State as Minnesota's main Big Ten title competition.

Matt Perkins

At the midway point of the Big Ten regular season, Minnesota’s baseball team finds itself competing for first place in the conference. This is nothing new: The Gophers have won three straight titles.

The competition, however, is different this time around.

For the first time in five years, the Gophers aren’t chasing down or being chased down by Ohio State. Illinois appears to be the new team to beat, as it’s currently tied with Minnesota for first in the conference at 12-4. The Buckeyes, conversely, dropped to 4-9 after losing their lone game against Michigan during the weekend.

But the two conference front-runners have gotten where they are with different styles of play. The Illini are getting it done with productive power numbers, while the Gophers have manufactured their runs and wins.

“I think I’ve gotten used to (Ohio State) being up top,” senior third baseman David Hrncirik said. “But Illinois has been able to exploit opposing teams’ starting pitching, and their style is working.”

Since the Big Ten recombined its two divisions into one in 1988, Illinois (23-12, 12-4 Big Ten) has captured one title, and the Gophers (21-16, 12-4) have walked away conference champions four of the last five years.

While the Gophers’ success has come from playing small ball, any description of the Illini’s style likely wouldn’t involve the word “small.”

Illinois is first in slugging percentage (.465) and home runs (32) while having the second-fewest strikeouts of any team in the Big Ten.

The Illini also lead the conference with a 3.73 team ERA and have gotten six complete games out of their starting pitchers.

The statistics and standings represent a complete turnaround from last year, when Illinois finished second to last in the conference, with an 11-21 record, while the Gophers went 21-10.

The rosters have changed, and the revamped Illini offense has opposing pitchers limping back to the bullpen.

But that might be right where the Gophers want them.

“All year, our bullpen has been a strong point,” Minnesota coach John Anderson said. “We may have, at times, struggled to get the ball to them, but we feel very confident if the game comes down to a battle between bullpens.”

The Gophers bullpen has put in overtime this season, with only starters Matt Loberg and Cole DeVries pitching more innings than closer John Gaub.

But Gaub hasn’t shown any signs of wearing down at the halfway mark and has struck out 52 batters in 30 innings pitched.

The Gophers feel confident their bullpen will hold up down the stretch with 16 Big Ten games remaining.

So after a slow 4-10 start to the nonconference season, they have been able to speed things up as they try to become the first team since Ohio State (1991-94) to win four regular-season titles in a row.

Illinois should have something to say about that, as should 11-5 Iowa.

“I think from where we started out, how slow we started, we’ve come a long way,” Gaub said. “Right now, we’re sitting well. But it’s obviously going to come down to the end of the year, with two teams nipping at our heels.”

Gaub is pitcher of week

Gaub was named Big Ten pitcher of the week Monday. He pitched 4 2/3 scoreless innings during the weekend, earning two saves and striking out 11 batters.

Higginbotham awarded

Softball catcher Megan Higginbotham was named Big Ten player of the week for the second-straight week Monday.

She hit 7-for-12, with four RBIs, a home run and three stolen bases in four games during the weekend. In her last eight Big Ten games, she is 19-for-26, with 12 RBIs, nine runs and three homers.

Rowing has boat of week

Minnesota rowing’s First Varsity Eight boat won Big Ten boat of the week honors Monday. It is its second of the season.

The 19th-ranked Gophers’ top boat beat No. 14 UCLA on Saturday at Lake Phalen in St. Paul, and Minnesota figures to move up in the rankings with the upset.