U takes us against world’ to regionals

by Sarah Mitchell

Winter in Minnesota: Small, white objects fall from the sky, people wear gloves and knee-high socks and the chant of dig, dig, dig is often heard.
Winter in Alabama: Small white objects fall from the sky, people wear gloves and knee-high socks, and the chant of dig, dig, dig is often heard.
These two descriptions might read exactly alike, but they are quite different.
Minnesota natives sporting gloves and knee-high socks are smart citizens, protecting themselves from the brutal weather. People in Alabama wearing such apparel are baseball players.
The chant in Minnesota often comes from the roadside as people attempt to rescue a misguided car from deep snow. The chant in Alabama is encouraging the runner, fresh out of the batter’s box, to beat out a throw to first base.
Like Alabama, Minnesota’s first opponent in the regional tournament this weekend, the other four teams competing at the West region — host Stanford, Long Beach State, North Carolina State and Loyola Marymount — consider January and February part of the baseball season, not part of winter.
But many Gophers refuse to see the cold Minnesota weather, which prevents the team from practicing outdoors and forces the team to start their Big Ten season in the Metrodome, as a disadvantage.
“Baseball is baseball,” pitcher Dan McGrath said.
In fact, as they prepare to compete in one of eight regionals across the country, some of the players consider this stereotype of baseball in the North as an advantage.
“We are a dangerous team,” pitcher Kelly Werner said. “I think they will be surprised. I think we are sitting pretty well.”
The Gophers, in their first regional appearance since 1994, are a No. 5 seed. While most people expected Minnesota to earn a higher seed because it qualified for regionals by winning the Big Ten tournament and not by receiving an at-large bid, the team realizes its ranking won’t affect its performance.
“You have got to beat the other teams sooner or later to win it,” pitcher Jason Dobis said. “So it really doesn’t matter, anyway.”
Also, the players aren’t taking their lower seeding as a sign that they haven’t had a good season to this point.
“You can’t be that bad if you are in the tournament,” McGrath said.
Bad isn’t a word the team wants to associate with its first round game.
In this double elimination tournament, which results in eight teams prolonging their season into next week at the World Series in Omaha, Neb., being victorious in game one is key.
“If you lose your first game, it’s hard to battle back,” McGrath said.
Minnesota faces quite a battle in today’s first-round game, which begins at 5 p.m.
The 1997 Alabama baseball season was dubbed the most successful in team history. Alabama appeared in its second consecutive College World Series, and wound up being the national runner-up.
Having a potent offense helped Alabama in its bid to win in Omaha. The Crimson Tide led the nation in runs scored (679), total hits (860), total bases (1571) and slugging percentage (.621).
But the fact that Alabama has eight position players from last season returning to this year’s regional does not decrease the Gophers’ chances of winning.
“They don’t know anything about us, and we are going in as probably an underdog,” McGrath said, “which is probably an advantage because they are probably thinking beyond our game.”
Alabama might not have lived up to its expectations this season. Unlike the Gophers, the Crimson Tide finished third in the SEC tournament this year.
While the team did not perform well that weekend, several of its members did. Three of the team’s players were named to the SEC all-tournament team — outfielder Drew Bounds, designated hitter Jayson Cox and pitcher Jarrod Kingrey.
Bounds and Cox led the tournament offensively with a .588 and .529 batting average, respectively. Kingrey, who is projected to start against the Gophers, set an Alabama school record for the most strikeouts in a single-season SEC tournament game, which also happened to be his first start of the season. The right-hander fanned 11 hitters.
Ben Birk is scheduled to take the mound for the Gophers today. After that, the starting role will be determined by which pitcher is the most rested and provides Minnesota with the best chance to win. Although highly unlikely, it’s possible that regular starters such as McGrath and Brad Pautz might see action against Alabama if Birk struggles.
That would, however, contradict recent history. With the end of its season at stake, Minnesota might be nearing its potential. The team went 3-0 in the Big Ten Tournament last weekend, beating Ohio State, Penn State and Illinois.
“The level that we are playing at right now is good enough,” McGrath said. “In the end it might be that we just had a great game, but they played just a little better.”