After struggling through the early part of the season, the Minnesota baseball team is finally starting to look like the squad that won last year’s Big Ten championship.
The Gophers (10-6) tore through a three-game series with lowly Northern Illinois (1-8) this weekend at the Metrodome. Minnesota handily swept the Huskies, winning 9-2 on Saturday and taking Sunday’s doubleheader 8-2 and 7-1.
Never mind that Northern Illinois could probably make a lot of teams look good; the Gophers played well this weekend. Junior Dan McGrath made a successful return to the pitching mound and junior Mike Arlt hit his first career home run — a monstrous 412-foot shot into the upper deck in right field.
“I was a little impressed,” Coach John Anderson said. “We saw some return of a short game. The bunt, drag-bunt and just moving people around the bases was better. I was impressed by the pitching staff, too. We pitched better than last weekend and threw strikes.”
Minnesota’s pitching staff was bolstered by McGrath’s return. McGrath started the early game Sunday and looked solid. He went just 2 two-thirds innings — he was limited to 35 pitches by Anderson — and gave up one run on two hits, striking out three.
“I was a little relieved,” McGrath said. “I didn’t have any faith in what I was doing out there before the game.”
His control was a little off, but McGrath worked his way out of a jam in the second inning with a pair of strikeouts. But McGrath warns against wanting too much, too soon.
“I’m not going to expect to have what I had last year right away,” he said.
In the second game, junior Kelly Werner continued his comeback from injury with a six-inning outing. Werner allowed just one run on three hits.
Even Gophers starting quarterback Andy Persby got into the action. Persby closed out Werner’s game with a no-hit, two-strikeout performance in one inning.
The strong pitching got started Saturday with senior Brad Pautz. Pautz went seven innings and allowed two runs in the Gophers’ 9-2 win.
Pautz pitched against Florida State last weekend and gave up six earned runs. But he saw a big difference between the Seminoles and Huskies.
“Florida State is a good team. I pitched pretty much the same (on Saturday),” Pautz said. “Florida State fouled off a lot of my good pitches. Then I’d make one mistake and they’d take advantage of it.”
While things began to look better on the mound, senior Robb Quinlan looked good at the plate. Quinlan went 8-for-11 this weekend after a tepid Hormel Classic last weekend.
But he wasn’t the only one with improved stats. Almost everyone contributed to the Gophers’ offensive outburst this weekend. Junior Matt Scanlon credited the increase in hits to an increase in interest.
“I guess we had a change in attitude after we beat Wichita State. Everybody’s excited to play now,” Scanlon said.
The weekend series against Northern Illinois came at a good time for Minnesota. They were excited to play and took advantage of a lesser opponent to get in sync.
The Gophers will have a week off for finals before diving into the busiest part of their schedule. Minnesota will play six games over spring break.
“It’s about getting a lot of games in,” Pautz said, “as many as we can before Big Tens start.”
In those six games, Anderson will most likely settle on a lineup. Anderson tinkered with the Minnesota lineup throughout the weekend in search of a combination he liked. Anderson says he’s not necessarily satisfied with his team, despite its performance this weekend.
The Big Ten season opens the weekend after spring break.
“We’re a little unsettled and we’re experimenting with Jack Hannahan at third base and Matt Scanlon at second,” Anderson said. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable, but there’s optimism and hope that we can be a good team now.”