Gophers set to start conference season

Paul Cordes

Off to its best start since 1998, the Minnesota baseball team will take a break from its tough nonconference schedule to open up Big Ten play this weekend against Penn State.

The Gophers will head to State College for a 5:35 p.m. Friday game, a pair of seven-inning games on Saturday with the first of two beginning at 12:05 p.m. and the Sunday conclusion also with a 12:05 p.m. start time.

The Nittany Lions (4-13, overall, 0-0 Big Ten) have shared a similar tough schedule thus far this season with teams like North Carolina and Wichita State on their schedule, making it tough for them to find the win column.

Still, coach John Anderson said he wants his kids to have the same focus going into the conference opener as they’ve had in the previous nonconference games.

“We try not to approach it any different than the other games, but it’s hard,” he said. “It is the Big Ten, and it is your conference, and kids want to win their conference. You feel like it’s a new season, but as coaches we have to get them to settle down and approach and play the game like we’ve been playing all year.”

Minnesota is riding a five-game winning streak into Friday’s game and also boasts three wins this season against teams in the nation’s top 25.

The Gophers (15-5, 0-0) have played seven games against ranked opponents, and having faced a few of the best teams in the country is something freshman right-handed pitcher Allen Bechstein believes will help now that league play has arrived.

“We’ve played a lot of good teams in the nonconference,” he said. “It’s going to be the same challenge and we’re expecting the same tough games and opponents going into the Big Ten.”

To match its competition, Minnesota will try to rely heavily on a well-built pitching staff.

Gophers’ pitchers are sporting a 3.62 earned run average, and Anderson has attributed much of Minnesota’s early success to consistent performances from both starters and relievers.

Junior right-hander Ethan Vogt, who is coming off a complete game shutout against Hartford, will once again get the Friday start. Junior right-hander Gary Perinar and senior southpaw Marcus McKenzie will take care of the starting duties on Saturday before junior Dustin Brabender closes things out on Sunday.

The veteran right-hander will take a 4.21 ERA into the afternoon finale, but Anderson – who said Sunday games can decide a lot of things in league play – said he feels Brabender is the right man for the job.

“I’ve always felt the Sunday game decides a lot,” Anderson said. “It can determine whether you win the series, split the series, or in some cases, whether or not you avoid the sweep.

“The Sunday game can be an impact game in the league. I think that’s a good spot for (Brabender) with his experience, and I think he’ll handle it well.”

Friday will be Minnesota’s first outdoor game north of Santa Barbara, Calif., and the Gophers could get a stark reminder of what spring baseball in the Midwest feels like.

Still, freshman second basemen Derek McCallum said the Gophers are ready for it.

“We’re looking forward to getting out of the Dome,” he said. “It’ll be nice to get back outside again.”