Gophers look to close at the home stretch

Minnesota is five games behind first-place Northwestern in the Big Ten.

Robert Mews

It’s crunch time. And no, it’s not about finals.

Minnesota’s baseball team is at the critical cusp of the Big Ten race.

Starting at 3 p.m. today, the Gophers (22-21, 9-11 Big Ten) play Big Ten leader Northwestern (17-25, 14-6 Big Ten) in Evanston, Ill. The two teams will resume their four-game series at 1 p.m. Saturday for a doubleheader, and conclude the series at 1 p.m. on Sunday.

“It’s a critical juncture for us,” coach John Anderson said about the final three weeks of the Big Ten season.

Although the Gophers have a losing record in Big Ten play, they still have a legitimate shot at gaining some ground before the regular season ends.

“Everybody is so jammed up together,” first baseman Andy Hunter said. “We haven’t done anything we really wanted to do so far in the Big Ten and we’re a couple good weekends away from being right back at the top again.”

This season has been especially competitive. The difference between first-place Northwestern and last-place Indiana is just seven games. Minnesota is in sixth, and is five games behind Northwestern.

Anderson said that makes this weekend all the more important.

“We’re on the ropes, we’re getting beat around pretty good and we’re going to have to see if we can fire away,” he said. “What I’m looking for is how we handle this, how much fight we have left, how much passion, how much pride we have in the history and tradition of the program.”

Minnesota has been in this spot before.

Last season, the Gophers were swept on the road against Purdue and Iowa late in the season but turned it around with four consecutive victories before the last Big Ten series of the season.

“The only good news for us is that we got them (Northwestern), we got Ohio State, two teams we’re looking up at,” Hunter said. “And so it’s kind of in our hands to take advantage of those two weekends.”

There are chances that Minnesota could avenge what has been a disappointing season so far.

The team has played better on the road, winning 12 of its games on the road this season, compared with only 10 at home. And Northwestern has a losing record overall, which indicates that they might be lucky.

“There is some luck involved,” Anderson said, “and some grit and passion there, but they’ve won the close games.”

The Wildcats have won 11 one-run games and four two-run games.

“It’s really weird when you look at all the stats and stuff like that,” freshman catcher Chris Herbert said. “I mean the opponents’ batting average is above theirs. They’ve come back from a lot of games which shows a lot about their character.”

But Anderson is more concerned with his team’s character in this critical juncture of the Big Ten race.

“We can’t afford a split in my opinion,” he said. “So we got to have the mind-set that we got to win the series.”