Gophers hope to impress during Big Ten season

Minnesota has struggled early, but history shows there is time to improve.

Aleutian Calabay

The non-conference schedule has been a rough one for the Minnesota baseball team as it has started with an 8-16 record. However, the Gophers still have plenty of reasons to remain optimistic as they prepare to start the Big Ten season on Friday against Purdue. Minnesota head coach John Anderson has had several teams in this position before and has managed to turn teams that looked like busts into winners. From 2002 to 2004, the Gophers began the season with losing records, but came back with strong conference play and finished all three seasons first in the Big Ten. The team has said all season that pitching and defense will be its keys to victory, and although each has had lapses in several games this season, the Gophers still rank near the top of the conference in both categories. The Gophers’ pitching staff entered Wednesday third in the Big Ten with a 4.76 ERA and second in strikeouts, averaging 6.58 per game. Minnesota also ranks third in the conference in defense with a .972 team fielding percentage. âÄúYou have to execute all three phases of the game,âÄù Anderson said. âÄúIt seems like we do one phase and break down in another, and that’s why our record is what it is.âÄù The big question mark facing the Gophers moving forward will be whether or not their young hitters will be able to start stringing enough hits together to score more consistently. MinnesotaâÄôs offense ranks eighth in the Big Ten with a .283 batting average, but an inability to come up with run-producing hits has the Gophers last in the conference in runs scored, averaging just 4.375 runs per game. âÄúIf you can’t get to four or five runs consistently, it’s going to be hard to win,âÄù Anderson said. âÄúWe have to get some better at-bats. We’ve either been too aggressive or taking pitches that we should be hitting. There’s a fine line there, and the guys who get good at bringing in runners in scoring position are the ones who go on to make a lot of money.âÄù The Gophers will have their hands full against several good teams in the Big Ten this season. Ohio State won the Big Ten last season and remains the favorite to repeat again this season. The Buckeyes are off to a strong 13-7 record this season. Even though they donâÄôt have a player currently in the top 10 in the conference in batting average, they still lead the conference in hitting with a .344 team batting average. Ohio State may be the team to beat in the Big Ten, but the best record heading into conference play belongs to the upstart Spartans. Michigan State has come back from a 23-31 record in 2009 to begin the 2010 season with a 16-4 record. The Spartans appear to have found the balance the Gophers have been looking for throughout the season as they are first in the Big Ten in both pitching and fielding. They also rank fourth in hitting. The well-rounded combination makes Michigan State a tough team to beat every game they play. Michigan, Purdue and Indiana round out the top half of teams in the Big Ten, with each team entering conference play with a winning record. There will also be several outstanding individuals to watch for as the season progresses. Indiana sophomore Alex Dickerson was last seasonâÄôs Big Ten freshman of the year and has continued to play impressively. Just 22 games into the season he has already amassed a conference-leading 10 home runs and 33 RBIs while maintaining a .429 batting average. Several pitchers in the Big Ten are also putting up solid numbers, but none better than Ohio State junior starting pitcher Alex Wimmer . The preseason All-American leads the conference in wins (5), and strikeouts (41) while posting a 2.12 earned run average. The Gophers open Big Ten play against Purdue at 3 p.m. Friday. The two teams will also play at 1 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday.