Baseball team opens Big Ten bid

Back to the Future was a hit, Michael Jackson was still popular and Bill Buckner became a goat; the year was 1986, and the majority of the Gophers baseball team was still in Little League dreaming of an opportunity like the one it has this weekend.
The Gophers have an opportunity to win a Big Ten tournament, at home, on campus, in front of their home fans.
Minnesota now has the chance to do all of those things and to accomplish the goal it set at the outset of the season.
After winning the Big Ten regular season title Saturday, Minnesota will host the conference tournament starting Wednesday for the first time in 14 years.
“Our goal at the beginning was to win the Big Ten regular season,” senior pitcher Chadd Clarey said. “We’ve done that, now our goal is to win the tournament.”
Although the Gophers have captured six tournament titles in the 20-year history, they have yet to win one at home. The quest to do so starts Wednesday.
Top-seeded Minnesota (36-20, 20-8 Big Ten) opens play against No. 6 Northwestern at 7 p.m. The two teams split a four-game series last month.
The Wildcats (30-25) squeaked into the tourney with a 13-15 conference mark and coach Paul Stevens said by making it the Wildcats have already accomplished their goal.
Not that their goal was to make it to the tourney and then go home, but because you can’t win it unless you’re in it.
“Our main goal was to go out and find a way to get into the tournament,” Stevens said. “Because once we got there, anything can happen.
“The parity in this conference this year is as good as I’ve seen it, where I think the sixth-place team has as good of a chance to win it as the first-place team.”
In this case, drawing the six seed couldn’t get any tougher for the Gophers. The Wildcats will be a dangerous first-round team because of one factor: starting pitching.
It’s the key to postseason success and the Wildcats have it. Northwestern has three starters who rank in the top five in ERA in the conference.
The Gophers draw Zack Schara or Dan Padgett on Wednesday. They both have conference ERA’s under 3.00.
“Northwestern is strong from the pitching standpoint,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “Whoever we face tomorrow is going to be a quality starter and that’s going to be our biggest challenge. Number one, we need to pitch and play defense to keep the game in balance and give ourselves a chance.”
As for Minnesota’s starter, that will be sophomore Mike Kobow. But Anderson said he’ll pitch anyone and everyone in hopes of pulling out the important game one win.
“I told the team yesterday we’ll use anybody that we have to win the (Northwestern) game,” Anderson said. “Then we’ll worry about game two.”
If the Gophers beat the Wildcats, they’ll play the loser of the Purdue-Illinois game at 3:30 on Thursday. A loss would mean Minnesota plays at noon the same day against the Penn State-Ohio State loser.

Lock for the NCAA tourney
The suspense of making the NCAA tournament that was supposed to fall over Siebert Field this weekend is over for the Gophers.
While winning the conference tourney cliches a berth in the NCAA tournament, Minnesota learned Tuesday it’s already in.
The Gophers will be one of 16 teams hosting a NCAA regional Memorial Day weekend, meaning Minnesota is guaranteed to be playing in the big dance.
Although hosting doesn’t necessarily mean Minnesota will be a top seed, it does give the Gophers the home-field advantage.
And while Minnesota isn’t looking past the Big Ten meet and towards NCAA’s, the automatic berth allows the Gophers to play loose.
“Knowing that we’re in the regional lets us relax and go out and have fun,” junior first baseman John Holthaus said. “We play our best baseball when we have fun.”
The last time the Gophers hosted a regional was 1977, when they advanced to the College World Series. Anderson was the MVP of that team.

Other matchups
The Gophers and Northwestern are set to play the night game at Siebert on Wednesday, which will be the third game of the day.
No.3 Purdue and No. 4 Illinois face off in the first game of the day at noon, with second-seeded Penn State and fifth-seeded Ohio State set to follow at 3:30 p.m.
While Minnesota is in the NCAA tourney, the five other teams playing in the conference tournament aren’t a lock for anything.
Regardless of how it plays this weekend, second-seeded Penn State appears to be on it’s way to postseason, and Illinois and Purdue are also strong candidates.
But a team like Ohio State, which came in fifth place in the Big Ten, will need to play itself into the postseason.
“The NCAA selection committee is not going to take the fifth-place team from the Big Ten,” Ohio State coach Bob Todd said. “If we’re going to make it to NCAA’s, we have to win the tournament.”

John R. Carter covers baseball and welcomes comments at [email protected]