U hopes to add Big Ten Championship to Siebert wall

by Sarah Mitchell

The right field wall of Siebert Field tells a lot about the Gophers baseball team’s past.
The wall is divided into three parts: retired jerseys, NCAA Championships and Big Ten Championships. Names such as Dick Siebert and Paul Molitor and memorable years such as 1964 — the last time Minnesota reached the ultimate goal and was crowned NCAA champion — have their permanent place in Gophers history.
At a glance, the Big Ten Championship section is the most dominant part of the fence, although it is the most easily attainable goal.
Maroon M’s clutter this area, each designated with a year that the Gophers were conference victors. But next to the 1985 M, hangs an M different from the rest — a blank one.
This one should read 1992, the last time the Gophers won the Big Ten Tournament. Perhaps Minnesota will make a painter’s job more worthwhile by bringing home another title, its first in six years, from Champaign, Ill., this weekend.
In failing to qualify for the conference tourney in 1996 and 1997, Minnesota’s baseball program hasn’t lived up to its own expectations. Coach John Anderson has taken his team to the tournament 13 times in the past 16 seasons, but the two missed trips have caused an uncomfortable feeling among members of the team.
“Coming in my first year, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t finish in the top four,” junior Craig Selander said. “In two years in a row, without much luck and not exactly playing up to our ability, we didn’t make it.”
The tournament begins today, with No. 2 seed Minnesota (42-13 overall, 19-9 in the Big Ten) scheduled to play No. 3 seed Ohio State (37-14, 18-9) at noon. Top seed and host Illinois (37-17, 19-5) battles fourth-seeded Penn State (27-22, 15-11).
The tourney’s double elimination format means it could be over as early as Saturday. In their comeback appearance, the Gophers wouldn’t mind sacrificing an extra day in Champaign for bragging rights as the best team in the conference.
“It was a drought,” Selander said. “I mean it’s a drought not to win the Big Ten Championship, let alone make it to the Big Ten Tournament.”
On paper, the Gophers and Ohio State match up evenly. Heading into the tournament, Minnesota has the highest batting average in the conference. But Ohio’s team average of .337 is not far below Minnesota’s .345.
The pitching staffs are also similar, although Ohio State’s 4.76 team ERA is a little on the high side compared to the Gophers’ 4.27.
Both teams even had a player given national honors on Monday. The Gophers’ Robb Quinlan was named Collegiate Baseball Player of the Week and Big Ten Player of the Week for his offensive surge. Quinlan batted .522 and knocked in 13 RBIs during the past week.
Buckeyes pitcher Eric Thompson was named Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week after firing a seven inning complete-game no-hitter against Michigan State on Sunday.
While the rest of the Buckeyes’ pitching staff is as challenging as Thompson, Selander said the Gophers should fare well because Ohio State’s hurlers rely on power.
Although Ohio State has probably scouted Gophers hitters and realize off-speed pitches cause them to struggle at the plate, Selander said the Buckeyes won’t change their style.
“I have played them two years in a row, and they come right at you,” he said. “They don’t change their pitching pattern to get the hitter out.”
If Minnesota fails to put another M on the fence, thus missing an automatic bid to the NCAA regionals, the team could still be offered an at-large regional bid.
Fifth-year senior Mark Groebner, who called the team’s Big Ten tournament appearance “my last hurrah,” is hungry for a regional berth and a shot at the College World Series.
“What I remember from the seniors last year is that it was kind of sad for them because they knew when their last game was going to be,” the Gophers outfielder said. “But I am kind of happy in that sense, because I don’t know when my last game is going to be.”