Defense keeping Minn. afloat in Big 10

Though the Gophers average less than four runs per game, they are within striking distance in the conference standings.

by Derek Wetmore

For the thirty years John Anderson has coached the Gophers baseball team, he has ingrained in his team the value of pitching and defense.

HeâÄôs also established a benchmark of five runs per game to assess his teamâÄôs offensive proficiency.

By the third measure, Minnesota has failed this season, amassing just 3.8 runs per Big Ten contest and a shade less than 4 runs per game overall. For most of this season, an unequal burden has been placed on pitching and defense to win games.

But pitching and defense are also how the Gophers have been able to remain afloat in the Big Ten (currently tied for fourth, 8-7 in conference play).

Minnesota has the fewest hits, runs and earned runs allowed and fewest walks in the Big Ten.

To boot, the Gophers have the second highest fielding percentage, .971, and that includes a miserable first game of the season in which the team committed four errors in a 14-1 drubbing at the hands of St. JohnâÄôs.

The starting pitchers have stepped up for the most part, considering theyâÄôve been tasked nearly every evening with being near perfect because the offense hasnâÄôt been up to snuff.

Pitching in situations where allowing one or two runs can be the difference in a game is often trying, as hurlers tiptoe the tightrope of slim leads while also staying relaxed.

The Gophers lost staff ace Seth Rosin to the Major League amateur draft last season, but sophomore TJ Oakes (3.36 ERA) and senior Phil Isaksson (2.73 ERA) have picked up the slack.

Sunday starter Austin Lubinsky (4.93 ERA) has had a few rough outings, but generally keeps the Gophers in the game and within striking distance.

The bullpen started off the season looking shallow, but of late itâÄôs been a big boon for Minnesota.

Scott Matyas has met expectations as arguably the most dominant closer in the Big Ten, and possibly Big Ten history. He is approaching the conference career saves record.

HeâÄôs missed a couple beats in non-conference play, but as Anderson frequently says, not even Matyas can be perfect all the time.

A closer is sometimes only as good as the bridge to him from the starters. If the lead is blown prior to the ninth inning, there will be no late lead for the teamâÄôs best reliever to protect.

Sophomore Billy Soule has turned himself into a trusted setup man, making important outs in tight situations in the seventh and eighth innings before yielding to Matyas.

He appears to be the closer-in-waiting when Matyas graduates, even though he had his 13-inning scoreless streak snapped Saturday.

Freshman Tom Windle has also emerged as a trusted option in critical situations and he showed his gumption late Saturday, pitching the final two innings of the GophersâÄô 12-inning win.

The outing prior to that he was even more dominant, tossing four perfect innings to pick up a win against Indiana and Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the second time.

âÄúTommy has pitched enough that heâÄôs not a freshman anymore,âÄù Anderson said of WindleâÄôs battle-tested ability. âÄúHeâÄôs scuffled here and there for a freshman but each time he goes out there he seems like heâÄôs getting more and more confident. He was electric [Tuesday] and just dominated [NDSUâÄôs] hitters.âÄù

The coaching staff has indicated that Windle is likely the first in line should any of the weekend starters falter or succumb to injury.

To a lesser extent, Luke Rasmussen, Alex Tukey and DJ Snelten have emerged as viable candidates to be called on from the bullpen.

âÄúI think weâÄôre definitely deep enough. We all have our bad days,âÄù Soule said. âÄúI know me and Scott will be ready for our future games in the Big Ten and our other guys as well.âÄù

Matyas said heâÄôs impressed with each member of the bullpen, from the two stand-out freshmen to the more tenured members who havenâÄôt seen much time on the field, but are still working diligently in practice.

âÄúDJ and Tommy have been pitching exceptional for freshmen and obviously Billy has been doing a great job in front of me, so I think we have plenty of depth to make a run just like we did last year,âÄù Matyas said.

Unless the offense makes a turn for the better and increases its potency, starting pitchers and bullpen arms alike will prove crucial for the Gophers down the stretch.

The next test comes this weekend at Michigan, which currently sports a 6-9 conference record and gives up stolen bases by the handful.

âÄúWeâÄôve got to move on in the Big Ten,âÄù Soule said after TuesdayâÄôs non-conference loss, later adding, âÄúI think weâÄôve got something going there right now. I think we just have a lot of confidence and we canâÄôt really worry about anybody else, we just have to win games and see what happens at the end.

Matyas, who failed to close the door on NDSU on Tuesday, wanted his team to close the book on the non-conference loss, or at least turn the page to focus on whatâÄôs important to the teamâÄôs tournament chances.

âÄúWe have to focus one game at a time and that starts with Michigan this weekend,âÄù Matyas said.