Healthier U baseball team

Jim Schortemeyer

Last weekend the Minnesota baseball team played No. 1 Florida State and No. 2 Wichita State and lost twice.
This weekend, Saturday and Sunday, the Gophers (7-6) will host lowly Northern Illinois (1-5) at the Metrodome. But Minnesota isn’t talking about a sweep. Coach John Anderson sees this series as yet another chance to evaluate his team.
“It’s another day to measure our program,” Anderson said.
The Huskies might provide a test, but not a strenuous one. Last year they finished with a 10-39-1 record, but coach Frank Del Medico attributes at least a share of that record to pitching problems.
“It was a combination of a lot of things,” Del Medico said. “We had a lot of injuries, especially in our starting rotation.”
If there’s any similarity between Minnesota and Northern Illinois, it might be in their respective starting rotations. Minnesota’s starters are just starting to get healthy.
Sunday could mark the return of junior Dan McGrath to the mound. McGrath has suffered from a condition he likens to “shin-splints of the biceps.” He’s also had shoulder problems, making his probable return Sunday all the more sweet.
“Anyone who’s injured is pretty raring to go and be a part of it,” McGrath said.
Anderson said that if McGrath continues to feel better, he’ll start one of Sunday’s games. Anderson also said that McGrath would likely be limited to 30 to 40 pitches’ worth of time on the mound.
But he’s already seen some pitching action this week. McGrath worked two innings in an inter-squad game Wednesday. He said the outing went well, and Anderson concurred.
“I was pleased,” Anderson said. “Velocity-wise he threw well. We’ll have to watch him and how he heals, to see if he can play Sunday.”
McGrath’s injuries have given him plenty of time to think about his role on the team.
“It’s helped me focus on what I want to do,” McGrath said. “It’s hard to play a lot one year, and then have to sit the next. I was itching to play, but I’ve learned to have some patience.”
The Gophers need all the fresh arms they can get. At one point, Minnesota had just one of their four starting pitchers healthy. With the return of McGrath, they’ll have three back.
The lone holdout is senior Ben Birk, who’s been sidelined by a nerve problem in his pitching elbow and probably won’t return until after the start of the Big Ten season in less than three weeks.
“We better get used to life without Ben,” Anderson said. “He can’t pick up a ball until April first, and he probably won’t be throwing a hundred pitches until May. You don’t replace your number one guy.”
If any good has come out of the pitching shortage, it’s in the bullpen. Several young pitchers are getting valuable innings, with junior Frank Wagner emerging as a go-to guy.
“We needed somebody to get us on track pitching-wise and he’s done that,” Anderson said. “He’s helped solidify the bullpen. He’s had three good games in a row.”