Minnesota earns top seed for conference tourney

The Gophers will face No. 8-seeded Iowa in the first round.

Jack White

While the Gophers did not make the Big Ten Tournament last year, Minnesota will go into this season’s tournament as the top seed after earning the outright conference crown last weekend. 

The team has improved from a ninth-place, under-.500 record in conference standings last year to .696 this season.

“We’re not nervous,” senior Dalton Sawyer said. “We’ve had a lot of big games at this point in the season, so we’re pretty ready for this. We’re pretty prepared, and so we don’t have to be nervous. We’re just excited to go down and play the best ball that we can.”

Minnesota will open first-round tournament play with eighth-seeded Iowa Wednesday in Omaha, Neb. The Gophers won their three-game series against the Hawkeyes 2-1 in April.

“Things change. Teams change, but we have some feel for the team,” said head coach John Anderson. “We can go back and take a look at what happened back then and study their year and their season. You got to look at who has been playing well for them recently, who’s hot, who they’ve been using out of the bullpen and some of those things.”

Minnesota will start junior Matt Fiedler — who heads into the tournament with a 3.67 earned run average and a record of 7-2 — on the mound in the tournament debut. 

Fiedler started in one of Minnesota’s previous victories against Iowa, where he pitched seven innings and gave up one run. 

Fiedler has also been a big contributor at the plate. He has a .383 batting average with seven homeruns and 36 RBI compared to a batting average of .310, four homeruns and 31 RBI last year.

“It’s been a growing process since I got here,” Fiedler said. “It’s a little bit more challenging to do both [hitting and pitching], and I’ve definitely had some learning curve, some bumps and bruises along the way. We’ve found a routine that works for me this year to make me a starter.”

Sawyer is also likely to make an appearance during the tournament. The senior is 7-5 with a 3.31 ERA this season after going 4-3 with a 4.53 ERA all of last year. 

The team’s success in the Big Ten isn’t uncharacteristic. The Gophers last won the conference title in 2010 and have claimed 22 more in program history. 

A Big Ten Tournament title would give the team — which is not currently ranked inside the top 25 teams of the NCAA — an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, where Minnesota will face tougher teams outside its conference. 

“I don’t think anybody can say they’re in [the NCAA Baseball Tournament] in this part of the country,” Anderson said. “We’re challenged in the north. We have a lot of high-RPI teams to play once we get home, so there’s no guarantee here. We’re going to do what we’ve done all year. We’re going to show up on Wednesday.”