Gophers focus on defense vs. Wildcats

Minnesota ranks 28th in the nation with a .971 team fielding percentage.

by Matt Perkins

Fundamentals, the key to Minnesota’s baseball team’s success, start on defense.

Tied for first in the Big Ten with Illinois at 9-3, the Gophers host fourth-place Northwestern this weekend for a four-game set, and Minnesota is concentrating on its defense.

The Gophers are ranked 28th in the nation in team defense with a .971 fielding percentage.

That fielding percentage is thanks in large part to the Gophers’ impressive ability to turn the double play and first baseman Andy Hunter’s ability to bail out his teammates.

The Gophers look to continue their defensive consistency this weekend at Siebert Field, with the first game at 6:30 p.m today.

Hunter, a junior, started his career with the Gophers as a backup catcher and a designated hitter.

Now, he has established himself as a reliable everyday first baseman, while continuing his solid offensive production.

“He’s really become a solid first baseman since moving over there early in his career,” shortstop Matt Fornasiere said. “I know he picked one up for me (Wednesday at South Dakota State), so he has become a really solid first baseman defensively.”

Since starting 10 games at catcher and none at first base his freshman season in 2003, Hunter has transitioned well to first base, starting 38 games as a sophomore and 32 of this season’s 33 games.

Hunter has excelled defensively this year, committing only one error and leading the infield with a .997 fielding percentage.

Hunter’s defensive stability has been a surprising addition to the Gophers’ consistent ability to turn the double play.

Minnesota is fourth in the Big Ten with 29 double plays – a number always in the back of the pitchers’ minds.

“The double play helps us out a lot when we get in jams,” third baseman David Hrncirik said. “Obviously, having good gloves out there is a big part of our success. It only gives our pitchers more confidence.”

Defensive success is nothing new to the Gophers. Coach John Anderson said the team has always relied on fundamentally sound defense.

“It’s our key for our team to be successful,” Anderson said. “We have to play at a high level defensively. We don’t have the type of pitching staff that we’re going to strike out a lot of people. It’s not our philosophy.”

On Tuesday, the team practiced at the Metrodome, working specifically on first-and-third situations defensively.

The Gophers have fallen victim to the two-out, first-and-third delayed steal this season, so they paid close attention to their defensive strategies across the board.

“It will be critical for us this weekend because Northwestern has been able to pitch pretty well,” Anderson said. “They haven’t scored a lot of runs in the league, but they can pitch.

“It’s going to be the key to the series; we have to perform defensively.”

MRI for Krogman

Senior pitcher Josh Krogman underwent an MRI on Tuesday for soreness in his right shoulder.

The injury, which has limited Krogman to only four starts this season, is a backlash from his summer of 2002 Tommy John surgery, which forced him to miss the 2003 season.

Results from the MRI are not in, Anderson said, but Krogman will not see any action until they know the extent of the injury.