Veteran Gophers open season at UCLA

Minnesota is ranked fifth in a Big Ten preseason poll. The Gophers return nine of their top 10 hitters, but they will have to replace two starting pitchers.

Samuel Gordon

It’s the middle of winter in Minneapolis, but the boys of summer are back.

The Gophers baseball team will kick off its 2013 season this weekend with a three-game series against UCLA in Los Angeles.

Minnesota was voted to finish fifth out of 12 teams in the Big Ten Preseason Coaches Poll.

Minnesota has been practicing at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex since Jan. 25. The Gophers spent the fall practicing outside at the new Siebert Field complex.

“[It was fun] getting out there in the fall and seeing the progress that was made,” senior relief pitcher Billy Soule said.

Soule is one of several veterans on the team. This year’s squad is deep and experienced with seven seniors and 11 juniors.

“We’re returning a lot of players — a lot of key players,” sophomore shortstop Michael Handel said. “We want to make the Big Ten tournament again this year.”

Stud pitcher T.J. Oakes, however, is off to play in the big leagues, and three-year starter Austin Lubinsky is gone, too.

Junior starter D.J. Snelten is back, and junior Tom Windle is moving back into the rotation after injuries forced him into the bullpen last season.

Windle, who was last season’s Big Ten Preseason Pitcher of the Year, is making his second straight appearance on the Big Ten Preseason Players to Watch list.

Gophers head coach John Anderson said the coaching staff is working to develop two or three more starters.

Sophomores Ben Meyer and Jordan Jess will move into the rotation. Meyer was an All-Big Ten freshman last year, and Anderson said Jess made significant improvements in the offseason.

Alec Crawford, who was a junior college All-American in 2012, is expected to eat some innings as well, Anderson said.

“We feel comfortable,” Anderson said of the pitching rotation. “We have some players who are a year older. It’s never one guy who will replace [the players we lose]. It’s got to be multiple guys.”

Minnesota’s pitchers will need some run support — something last year’s starters didn’t receive on a consistent basis.

Last season, the Gophers hit .266 as a team. The good news for Minnesota is that nine of its 10 top hitters are back.

“I think there’s been some improvement based on what I’ve seen in intersquad games,” Anderson said. “We have to improve offensively, and I believe we will.”