One of the biggest question marks concerning the Gophers entering the season was the left side of their infield.
Third baseman Rob Smith graduated and shortstop Steve Huls left early for the pros after last season, leaving Minnesota with plenty of options but few proven players at those positions.
Throughout the Gophers’ season-opening sweep of Purdue at the Metrodome this weekend, however, senior Bob Keeney and freshman Mark Devore showed they’re quite capable of holding their own at third and short, respectively.
Keeney, who started his Gophers career at second base but played center field last year, has started all but one of Minnesota’s games this season at third. He leads the team in errors with seven, but most came early in the season when he was still adjusting to the position.
What made the switch even tougher for Keeney was that he could practice very little before the season because of off-season back surgery.
“I just needed a little more repetition,” Keeney said. “In the winter, I didn’t get to do a whole lot.”
The 20 non-conference games the Gophers played allowed Keeney ample time to learn the position. He played error-free ball against Purdue and made two outstanding diving stops on balls hit to his left in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader.
Unlike Keeney, Devore was not the first option at shortstop, or even the second. Minnesota first tried Robb Quinlan there, but moved him to left field. Next was sophomore Matt Brosseau, but his .172 batting average sent him to the bench. That left Devore, who had just seven at-bats before the Purdue series.
He exceeded expectations at the plate, going 6-for-15. But shortstop is a position in which defense is more important than offense. Devore delivered there as well. He made one error, but he more than made up for it by making a variety of tough plays.
He showcased his arm on several throws from deep in the infield and his glove on tough choppers. He also made a brilliant diving catch in the hole on Sunday.
“For his first Big Ten series, I don’t think you could ask for much more,” Gophers coach John Anderson said.
Incredible shrinking Baggie
One of the few features that gives personality to the Dome was notably absent this weekend — the 23-foot right field wall, dubbed “The Baggie” because of its soft plastic construction that almost absorbs baseballs rather than deflecting them.
A motorcross event was held at the Dome on March 15, and a fair amount of the 300 truckloads of dirt ended up on the Baggie. It was taken down for cleaning shortly thereafter. The Baggie will make its return for the Twins opener tonight, but it was absent for the 10 games the Gophers played there last week.
The seven-foot high fence in right field (the original height when the Dome was built in 1982) made an inviting target for left-handed hitters. But it was Minnesota’s Mark Groebner, a right-handed hitter, who took advantage of it this weekend.
He hit three home runs in the series, the second of which barely cleared the shortened right field wall. Gophers outfielder Troy Stein hit a homer Saturday that possibly would have hit the Baggie had it been there. Keeney thought Stein’s blast would have had a good chance of reaching the seats anyway.
He said that when the Baggie was redone a few years ago to display a Dodge advertisement, the height was also changed. The possibility of boosting home run totals did not escape the Gophers.
“It was about two rows shorter,” Keeney said, referring to the rows of football bleachers above the Baggie. “Believe me, we count.”
Senior left-hander Mike Diebolt was named Big Ten Pitcher of the Week on Monday.
Diebolt, 3-2 on the year with a 2.74 earned run average, won twice last week. He struck out 12 batters in six innings against Chicago State, and on Saturday threw a four-hit, seven-inning shutout against Purdue.
Around the Big Ten
ù Purdue fell to 2-6 in the Big Ten after getting swept by the Gophers. No player epitomized the Boilermakers’ futility more than freshman outfielder Mike Rose.
Rose missed the team bus, which left from West Lafayette, Ind., at 4:30 a.m. on Friday. He had a friend drive him to Midway Airport in Chicago, took a later flight to Minneapolis, caught a cab and made it to the team’s hotel right before the Boilermakers headed to the Dome.
Rose later realized he forgot to bring any white socks with him. He borrowed a pair — unnecessarily, it turned out, since he was benched for Friday’s game. He did start both of Saturday’s games, and also pinch hit on Sunday. Rose probably wished he would have stayed in bed all weekend. He went hitless in seven at-bats with four strikeouts.
ù Michigan swept Penn State this weekend, including a 17-6 pounding on Saturday.
But one Michigan player experienced what is the greatest fear of any baseball player (besides Nuke LaLoosh’s nightmare of pitching in nothing but a cap, spikes and jockstrap in the movie “Bull Durham”.
During the Wolverines’ 15-run fifth inning, freshman outfielder Rob Bobeda made all three outs.
ù Penn State, regular season champion in the Big Ten a year ago and picked by “Baseball America” to finish second this year, is the only team in the conference to start 0-4.
Hit & Run
ù The Gophers won five of six games over spring break against Chicago State, Northern Iowa, and UW-Milwaukee at the Dome. On paper the games figured to be blowouts, but two of them were one-run games. Minnesota also dropped one game to Chicago State, which was 0-14 on the season to that point.
ù Until this weekend, the Gophers last Big Ten season-opening sweep was in 1993 against Michigan. Minnesota finished second in the league that year with a record of 43-18.
ù Minnesota has averaged almost 10 runs in each of its 15 wins.