Pivotal series awaits baseball in West Lafayette

Anthony Maggio

Beneath a bright blue sky on Thursday afternoon, Minnesota’s baseball team enjoyed a relaxed, optional practice at Siebert Field.

With country music blaring through the crackling speakers at the ballpark, the Gophers in attendance took batting practice and played catch. But tomorrow, the clamps come down as Minnesota prepares for a crucial four-game series with Purdue starting Saturday in West Lafayette, Ind.

“It’s huge for both sides,” shortstop Scott Welch said. “A swing either way could put your season one way or the other, but hopefully we can go in the right direction.”

The Gophers (22-20, 10-6 Big Ten) currently sit at second place in the Big Ten with a .625 conference winning percentage. The Boilermakers (21-21, 11-9) are close behind Minnesota in fourth place, winning at a .550 clip.

Winning percentage is what Minnesota must focus on the rest of the season, as the squad has missed four conference games due to weather.

Ohio State currently sits atop the Gophers in the Big Ten with a 13-6 conference record and a .684 winning percentage.

“Winning percentage is the key,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “We can’t split with anybody the rest of the year to realistically have a chance to win the league. We’ve got to find a way to win every series.”

Purdue has played the most Big Ten games this season (20). But its conference spot is surprising when looking strictly at statistics.

In Big Ten play, the Boilermakers are seventh in earned run average, eighth in team batting average, and last in on base percentage.

So how has Purdue kept afloat near the top of the conference?

“Good question,” said Boilermakers coach Doug Schreiber. “We haven’t had the type of year offensively we wanted.

“But our hitting, although not setting any records, has been timely. So we’ve been able to get the most out of maybe four hits a game from time to time.”

For example, Purdue managed only four hits against Northwestern in a game on Apr. 14, but two were solo home runs and the Boilermakers won 2-1.

But therein lies Purdue’s problem as well. The Boilermakers average only 4.15 runs per conference game.

The Gophers average 5.5 runs per game in Big Ten play. In addition, Minnesota leads the conference with a .329 batting average in league games.

And as of late, Minnesota’s offense has been impressive.

Welch’s bat came alive this week as he drove in seven runs in the last two games against Division III opponents. In addition, the middle part of the lineup continues to pound the ball, with Luke Appert hitting .397, Jason Kennedy batting .336, and Scott Howard posting a .363 mark in conference games.

“If we get in a slug fest with these guys we’ll be in good shape,” Welch said.

On the hill, Purdue boasts junior Chadd Blasko.

The right-hander is third in the conference with a 2.04 ERA, but the pitching staff drops off from there, as the Boilermakers start two freshmen.

For the Gophers, sophomores Jay Gagner and Josh Krogman both return from elbow injuries. Krogman sat out last weekend’s Indiana series, but threw an inning of relief on Wednesday against St. Cloud State.

Gagner, on the other hand, hasn’t pitched since the Michigan series during the first weekend of April.

Krogman and Gagner will likely split one game of the double-header on Sunday.

“I’m probably not 100 percent,” said Gagner. “But I’m ready to go.”

A double-header is scheduled for Sunday because the series was pushed back a day due to finals week at Purdue. The schedule might be tough for the Boilermakers to overcome.

“Traditionally we haven’t played all that strong coming off of finals,” Schreiber said.

The teams will play one game Saturday, a twin bill on Sunday, and a game Monday.

“If we don’t take three this weekend, unless Ohio State (chokes), we don’t have a chance in hell at Big Tens,” Gagner said. “So we have to take at least three. If we do that we put ourselves in a good position.”

Anthony Maggio covers baseball and welcomes comments at [email protected]