U will try anything to shake offensive slump

by Tim Klobuchar

Gophers senior Troy Stein was pulling on his batting gloves Wednesday afternoon in front of the first base dugout at Siebert Field. He was preparing for batting practice when Gophers assistant coach Rob Fornasiere called from the pitcher’s mound: “Hey Troy, do you mind if Matt hits in your group?”
Matt is the 13-year-old son of Fornasiere and an occasional participant at Minnesota practices.
“That’s fine,” answered Stein. Then he smiled. “Maybe he can give us a few pointers.”
Unless Stein thought the Gophers could use some advice on how to drive a 60 mile per hour fastball to the opposite field, he was kidding.
A week ago, when Minnesota still had its Big Ten-leading .344 team batting average and was in third place, Stein’s remark would’ve been flip. Then Minnesota scored only 12 runs in four losses to Illinois and dropped to fifth in the league. Now Stein’s suggestion is self-deprecating.
By getting swept, Minnesota fell out of contention for the Big Ten regular season title, and into a scramble just to make the Big Ten tournament, which includes the top four teams.
The Gophers face a crucial four-game series this weekend at eighth-place Iowa, desperately needing a series win.
“It’s a different kind of pressure,” Gophers senior Eric Welter said, comparing this weekend to past weekends. “We’re fighting for survival, basically.”
Minnesota hasn’t won a Big Ten series since its conference opener, a sweep over Purdue. With a game and half separating the Gophers from fourth place, and just two series left, that’s a streak that can’t continue if they are to make the tournament.
“It’s pretty disappointing, because we really haven’t got anything going,” said Gophers designated hitter Phil McDermott of the team’s recent offensive struggles. “We’ve got to get three out of four this weekend. At least.”
The Illinois series marked the first time the Gophers were swept at home in a Big Ten series since 1985. But Gophers coach John Anderson isn’t worried so much about the after-effects of that series as he is the first time something goes wrong this weekend. After the Illini pulled out a one-run victory in the series opener, things quickly deteriorated for Minnesota.
“If we experience some adversity early in the first game, it’s going to be critical how we handle it;” Anderson said, “whether we’re going to start to doubt ourselves, and start to press, and sometimes people start to blame each other. Then you start to play with that fear of failure rather than the desire and determination to win.”
Anderson probably hopes the Gophers pay attention to Welter, who mentioned the word “fun” a little bit more than one might expect from a player who could see his final season end prematurely. Welter said he thought the players pressed too much last weekend, which only made it harder on themselves.
“Every year there’s a little down time, where you struggle as team,” he said. “It just depends on how you come out of it. This weekend will tell how we come out of that. I think the best way to that is to just forget about last weekend, and go out and have some fun. Iowa’s got a nice stadium, a nice field, and it’s always fun to play there. So it should be a fun weekend.”
If Iowa lives up to its billing, it could be very fun for Minnesota. The Hawkeyes come into the series with the lowest overall team batting average (.277) and fielding percentage (.945) in the Big Ten. But as the Gophers first realized last weekend against Illinois, then in eighth place, they shouldn’t expect the team they’re playing to look anything like its record. There’s even a chance Iowa could shut down Minnesota’s offense again.
How does Matt Fornasiere, hitting coach, sound?

Note: Illinois and Purdue are tied for fourth place in the Big Ten, a game and a half ahead of the Gophers at 13-11. Illinois hosts eighth-place Northwestern (tied with Iowa), and Purdue is at seventh-place Indiana. It is the last Big Ten series of the year for both teams. The Gophers close their season with a home series against Northwestern next weekend.