Loberg riding high as shut-down artist

Senior starting pitcher Matt Loberg has pitched 25 straight scoreless innings.

Matt Perkins

Before this season, the only thing on the rise for Matt Loberg’s career was his earned run average.

Now that his ERA has dropped so far as to make heads turn around the country, it’s Loberg’s stock that’s on the rise.

Since his solid performance as a freshman on Minnesota’s baseball team – a 4-3 record with a 4.50 ERA – Loberg’s record has fluctuated while his ERA has gradually risen.

Heading into this year, that made the senior a poster child for the questions surrounding the Gophers’ starting rotation going into the season.

Now, those question marks have become exclamation points, with Loberg having the best ERA in the Big Ten at 1.54 and a 25-inning scoreless streak.

He is also second in the conference in wins with five, second in walks per nine innings at 1.56 and third in innings pitched with 46 2/3.

But the biggest factor in Loberg’s sudden success doesn’t flaunt itself in numbers.

Coach John Anderson said Loberg’s work ethic is second to none.

“The teacher can’t appear until the student allows,” Anderson said. “You can’t help people that don’t want to be helped. But Matt listened to what we had to say, took some initiative and made some changes.”

But the change wasn’t in his attitude, and he didn’t revamp his mechanics during the offseason.

He simply moved his fingers two inches apart.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know whose idea it was,” pitching coach Todd Oakes said. “But he had been trying to throw a circle change. Now he has moved to a kind of split-finger grip, and it’s worked out well for him.”

Such a change might seem small, but the extra 5-6 mph difference between Loberg’s fastball and his off-speed pitch has baffled hitters so far this season.

The change in his changeup has paid off, with Loberg becoming the Gophers’ Friday-night stopper – something they never expected to have when Glen Perkins left after last year.

“It’s tough to compare anyone to Glen Perkins,” Loberg said. “I don’t think I’m going to be a first-round draft pick.”

Although nobody’s calling him the second coming of Perkins, Anderson compared Loberg’s gradual success to another former Minnesota draft pick.

C.J. Woodrow was selected in the 25th round of the 2003 Major League Baseball Draft by the Philadelphia Phillies after compiling four years of consistent success as the Gophers’ No. 2 starter.

But Loberg is penciled in every Friday as the Gophers No. 1 starter, which is a role he has flourished in so far this season by winning the last two Big Ten pitcher of the week awards.

The awards have gone a long way in getting his name out to scouts nationwide. Loberg said he always had the childhood dream of playing in the majors but refuses to think about it becoming a reality.

So for now, as his ERA drops and his stock rises, he’ll stay somewhere in between.

“I’m not really concerned with that right now,” Loberg said. “I figure I just keep doing my job with this team, and I might have a shot down the road with somebody else.”