Hormel Classic is host to some of nation’s best

Jim Schortemeyer

What might be the best baseball team in Minnesota will be in action at the Metrodome this weekend, but there won’t be a professional in the house.
The Hormel Classic usually includes the Gophers and several so-so teams, but not this year. Minnesota (6-4) will be host this weekend to top-ranked Florida State, 13th-ranked Wichita State and Washington State.
It figures to be a long weekend for Gophers pitchers, or at least the bullpen. Starters Ben Birk and Dan McGrath will be inactive this weekend as they recover from injuries.
“I’d like to be healthier on the mound. McGrath is about one or two weeks away from playing right now,” coach John Anderson said.
The absence of McGrath and Birk has forced Anderson to juggle his starting rotation, but it’s not unusual for Anderson to use a wide variety of pitchers early in the season. Anderson likes to see how players respond to a chance to play and to develop pitchers for next season.
There is some good news on the pitching front. Senior Brad Pautz is continuing his hot pitching streak from last season, with a minute 1.69 ERA. Plus, junior Kelly Werner will make his second outing of the year tonight against Washington State (8-2). Anderson said that Werner will be limited to around 60 pitches before he turns the game over to the bullpen.
And while Minnesota isn’t exactly running empty on pitching, this certainly isn’t the best weekend to face Florida State.
The Gophers will face the Seminoles (12-2) — a team that’s not short on anything — Saturday at 1:30 p.m. The Seminoles are led by sophomore pitchers Jon McDonald and Nick Stocks. McDonald led the team in wins with 10 last year, while Stocks had a seven and a 2.35 ERA.
“Florida State has probably the best pitching staff in the country,” Anderson said. “But with astroturf and those aluminum bats, there’s more offense. It may bode well for us.”
All that good pitching in practice must be teaching the batters a thing or two — Florida State has five batters hitting over .400. And the hitting is coming from young players like freshman Matt Diaz, who is hitting .474, has 21 RBIs and is on a 14-game hitting streak.
Gophers senior Robb Quinlan is on a 15-game hitting streak of his own, and is poised to break several of Minnesota’s all-time hitting records.
Despite Quinlan’s hitting, Minnesota is coming off a road trip with mixed results and several question marks in the lineup. Still, junior Mark Devore is happy with how the team’s been playing.
“We’ve been hitting pretty well and the pitchers came along and did their job and kept us close,” Devore said.
Junior catcher Jeremy Negen figures to have the best seat in the house for what may be some high-scoring affairs. Negen had some advice for his pitching staff.
“They just have to concentrate on throwing strikes and letting the fielders do their job,” Negen said. “If they do that, we can keep it close, and we’ve been close in all our games so far.”
Anderson said that in some ways he was surprised the Gophers had six wins at this point in the season, and looks for this weekend to challenge his veteran team.
“This field appears to be the best ever since we started this tournament in 1985,” he said. “We made those commitments a couple years ago and now Florida State and Wichita State are two legitimate contenders for the national championship. It’s a great field.”
Minnesota’s first game is tonight with Washington State at 7 p.m. The Gophers will play Wichita State on Sunday.