Gophers baseball opens season with trip to the South

by Tim Klobuchar

As Paul Molitor exited the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex on Wednesday, he stopped for a moment near the Gophers baseball players, who were huddled for a brief team meeting.
The Minnesota Twin and ex-Gopher, who often takes batting practice with the Gophers before the major league season starts, wished the team luck on their seven-game road trip through the Deep South, which starts today.
It was the last time Molitor and the Gophers would see each other before the college team flew to Alabama on Thursday and the pro team heads to Ft. Myers, Fla., for spring training next week.
Molitor and the Twins will have over a month to get back into playing shape and prepare for the regular season. In the past, the Gophers treated their annual southern swing much like their own spring training.
In the Gophers’ case, they used it to prepare for the Big Ten season. Since Minnesota isn’t able to play outside until March, and usually has several positions unsettled, it has written off the poor results of the trip (3-17 the last three years) to early-season inexperience.
This time around, however, the Gophers will take Molitor’s well-wishing a bit more seriously.
Already with the expectation of a Big Ten title this spring, Minnesota has also decided to raise its goals for its opening games.
“We’re going to try to place greater emphasis on these games this year,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “We’ve had the tendency to say, Wait until the Big Ten season, and then we’ll turn it up a notch.’ Our first game is one of our 56 games, and we should approach it like any other.”
Minnesota’s biggest change is on the mound. Last year Anderson used five different starting pitchers in six games. This year he plans to use just three starters in seven games: Justin Pederson, Mike Diebolt and Brad Pautz.
“Our rationale is we want to get them as many starts as possible this year,” Anderson said of his projected starters. “It gives us a chance to win more games. We figure those three should get 45 to 50 starts (combined) this year.”
The Gophers might be a little ahead of previous teams because they’ve had extended practice time on a regulation field, an advantage not usually enjoyed.
“We’ve practiced at the Metrodome four or five times since the (Feb. 3) alumni game,” senior infielder Eric Welter said. “It’s not the same as being outside, but it helps us that much more.”
One aspect of the spring trip that hasn’t changed, though, is the uncertainty of a few positions. The departure of third baseman Rob Smith to graduation and shortstop Steve Huls to the pros has left a void on the left side of the infield.
Freshman Matt Scanlon, who would have seen significant time at third base, dislocated the middle finger of his right hand, and will not play at all on the trip.
Senior Bob Keeney, meanwhile, said his back, which hindered him nearly all of 1996, is feeling great. The problem is, however, where he will play.
He was the starting center fielder last year, but with the arrival of freshmen Mike Arlt and Ben Birk, both of whom might be better defensively, Keeney could be moved. Anderson said the most likely spot is third base, since Keeney played infield, mostly second base, until 1996.
Sophomore Robb Quinlan, who hit .325 his freshman year, will start at shortstop. He’s still a defensive liability there, though, and has put more time into that area. But all that work on defense might be hurting his offense, which is why he’s in the line-up in the first place.
“Robbie’s put a lot of energy into playing shortstop,” Anderson said. “And I think it’s impacted his hitting. Those two places (shortstop and third base) give me the most concern.”
So the Gophers must find a way to win as much as possible in the next 10 days, despite not knowing exactly who will help them win or where they’ll be playing. The players are aware of that, so they’re excited if for no other reason than to leave Minnesota for an extended period of time.
“The line-up the first game is never the same as the rest of the season,” Welter said. “It’ll be nice to get outside into a different environment. It’s something to look forward to, and it’s exciting.”
This year, however, the only thing that might make the trip really exciting are wins.