Hot-hitting Indiana brings big sticks to Siebert

by Anthony Maggio

Minnesota’s baseball team is set to begin the second half of its Big Ten season this weekend against Indiana.

Currently the Hoosiers and Michigan State sit tied at a half game ahead of the fourth place Gophers in the Big Ten, meaning this half of the conference schedule begins on a crucial note.

And unfortunately for Minnesota (18-20, 8-6 Big Ten), the journey continues without starting pitchers Jay Gagner and Josh Krogman.

“Indiana is very offensive minded,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “In the past we’ve been able to pitch to them a little, but if you make mistakes they like to hit the ball out of the park; they like to go for the big inning.

“It’s a concern of mine especially with two of our starters out.”

The Hoosiers (28-10, 9-6) bring a balanced and efficient offensive attack with them to Seibert Field. They are second in the conference in batting average – hitting .343 as a team – and are in the top three in the league in every batting category.

Leading the way for Indiana is outfielder Kennard Jones. The junior college transfer is batting .416 on the year, and leads the conference in hits and runs scored. He is also second in the conference in stolen bases.

But Jones isn’t the only Hoosier swinging a hot bat. Junior Vasili Spanos is batting a sizzling .405 and leads the Big Ten in slugging percentage (.835) and on base percentage (.516).

“Offensively right now we’ve got some guys that can run and some guys who’ve been swinging the bat,” Indiana coach Bob Morgan said. “They pick each other up. It hasn’t just been one guy; we’ve got some hitters up and down the lineup who have been able to step forward and come up with some clutch hits.”

With both Gagner and Krogman out with elbow injuries, the youthful Gophers pitching staff must step up to the challenge of facing one of the hottest offenses in the Big Ten.

Pitching coach Todd Oakes said freshman Matt Loberg will join C.J. Woodrow and Craig Molldrem in the starting rotation, while the fourth game of the series will be handled by committee.

But a lack of experience on the mound could spell doom for the Gophers if Indiana’s bats aren’t chilled by Minnesota’s weather.

“You have to hit your spots at the plate and hope they get themselves out,” Woodrow said. “The good hitters are going to get their hits, but you have to try to minimize the people that aren’t as hot. You just try to hit your spots and let the defense work.”

Minnesota’s defense, however, hasn’t worked too well as of late. The Gophers committed seven errors in three games last weekend against Illinois.

Morgan hopes his team can capitalize on any extra opportunities Minnesota gives them.

“We’ve just got to put the ball in play and if they kick it around that’s fine,” Morgan said. “But we’ve got to eliminate strikeouts and put the ball in play as much as we can and maybe force them into some errors. Their fielding average isn’t quite where it usually is.”

At the plate, the Gophers face a surprising Hoosier pitching staff, which is second in the conference with a 4.29 earned run average.

As a team, though, Indiana is ninth in the Big Ten with 200 strike outs, meaning Minnesota should get plenty of chances to get the ball in play.

And the Gophers are right behind the Hoosiers in batting average, hitting at a .312 clip.

But the key to the series remains in the gloves of the defense. If Minnesota plays soundly in the field, a series victory is attainable and hopes of a conference championship are still alive. The Gophers are three games behind first place Ohio State in the win column, and face the Buckeyes in the last series of the season.

“I kind of see it as a must-win,” Woodrow said. “If we can win the series or sweep Indiana and Iowa, we have a pretty good chance to hold our own destiny. Coming in to Ohio State at the end of the year we want to beat them at their own place for the title.”

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