Only twice in Gophers baseball coach John Anderson’s 16-year tenure has the team missed the Big Ten tournament. Once was last season.
To avoid making it two straight absences, fifth-place Minnesota almost assuredly needs a sweep of ninth-place Northwestern at Siebert Field this weekend. The top four teams make the tournament.
But Anderson said if the Gophers worry too much about the tradition, they have no hope of continuing it.
“History’s history, and that’s great. It’s great to have a winning tradition,” Anderson said. “But if you start thinking we have to win the rest of our games or we won’t finish at .500 or whatever, you get into a ‘have to, got to’ mode, and it’s hard to play the game that way.”
Still, it’s hard for the Gophers to ignore the program’s past, which includes 34 straight winning seasons and 13 consecutive season with 30-plus victories. The 11 seniors are particularly aware of it, since they have continued that tradition, and now want to avoid failing it.
“No one wants to let that down,” senior Bob Keeney said. “We don’t want to be known as the team, especially this group of seniors, that missed the tournament two years in a row.”
If the Gophers play against Northwestern the way they did at Iowa last weekend, they might not have to entertain those thoughts anymore. Minnesota’s season was on the line, and it swept four from the Hawkeyes, winning three games convincingly.
It was the one game they squeaked by Iowa, though, that gives the Gophers even more confidence. Minnesota won game three of the series 2-1, rallying for two runs in the last two innings.
That game improved Minnesota’s record in one-run Big Ten games to 2-5. The Wildcats have the best staff earned run average in conference games, so the Gophers might face similar close games this weekend.
“Earlier in the year in those one-run games we lost, I don’t think we ever got the break that we needed,” Gophers sophomore Craig Selander said. “Now that it’s later in the year, we’re gaining confidence in those games.”
The Gophers have improved in close games lately, winning two of their last three one-run games.
Minnesota lost its first four one-run games, and it’s those losses that make Anderson hesitant to dismiss this team as not worthy of its predecessors if Minnesota misses the Big Ten tournament. Before being swept by Illinois two weeks ago and dumped into the middle of the conference race, the Gophers were in contention for the Big Ten regular season title.
“If we win one of those one-run games, we still have a chance to win the league,” Anderson said. “That’s why you have to be careful of how you evaluate yourselves and how much pressure you put on yourselves because that’s how close it is.”
Although the Gophers have no margin for error this weekend, they have some precedents to follow. First, Illinois won eight straight Big Ten games to end its season and pass Minnesota. The Gophers need a similar finish, but they’re halfway there. They faced a must-win situation every game in Iowa and delivered every time.
That gives them every confidence that they can do it again this weekend.
“Personally, I haven’t really felt anything,” Keeney said of the pressure to win every game for the second straight week. “Maybe some of the guys have on an individual basis, but we just have to take care of ourselves and not worry.
“I can handle whatever happens as long as we play well. If we have a chance to win and give it away, that would be hard to swallow. But we’ll just go in like we did at Iowa, go in loose and let it all hang out.”
Notes: Minnesota senior left-hander Mike Diebolt has 103 strikeouts this year. If he strikes out seven in his start tonight, he’ll break the school single-season record set by Dave Winfield in 1973.
The only way Minnesota can make the Big Ten tournament without sweeping Northwestern is if the Gophers win three out of four, and either first-place Michigan or second-place Ohio State gets swept in their head-to-head series in Ann Arbor, Mich.