Minnesota sweeps NIU to start season

The Gophers, who struggled at the plate last season, scored 20 runs.

Minnesota catcher Mark Tatera dives back toward first base Friday, May 24, 2013, during the Big Ten tournament at Target Field. The Gophers lost 7-4 to Nebraska and finished fourth in the six-team tournament.

Daily File Photo, Emily Dunker

Minnesota catcher Mark Tatera dives back toward first base Friday, May 24, 2013, during the Big Ten tournament at Target Field. The Gophers lost 7-4 to Nebraska and finished fourth in the six-team tournament.

by Betsy Helfand

Minnesota has struggled at the plate in recent years, and the Gophers are making strides to address that issue this season.

So far, so good.

Minnesota racked up 20 runs in a series sweep against Northern Illinois this weekend in Glendale, Ariz.

“We’ve struggled the last couple years hitting. We know that. Everyone knows that,” infielder Mark Tatera said. “So to put up 20 runs [this weekend] was great. I think that’s just a tribute to all the hard work we’ve put in.”

The Gophers won 3-2 on Friday, 6-4 on Saturday and 11-5 on Sunday to complete the sweep.

Minnesota’s win Friday was an extra-innings affair, and the team won on a walk-off fielder’s choice by senior designated hitter Dan Olinger.

On Sunday, after Northern Illinois tied the game at 5-5, Tatera led off the bottom of the eigth inning with a triple.

Minnesota junior Tony Skjefte drove him in with an RBI single. Then the floodgates opened, and the Gophers wound up putting five more runs on the board in that inning.

“Last year we struggled with timely hitting — runners in scoring position, late in the game, things like that — and I think that was definitely a point to talk about during the offseason,” Tatera said.

Tatera, who drove in five runs Sunday, said the team tried to put “their backs against the wall” so they were more prepared for those situations.

Gophers starting pitcher Alec Crawford credited his teammates for their performances at the plate, given that they haven’t seen live pitching outdoors in months.

Crawford has become the team’s Friday starter, which he said was humbling and something he takes a lot of pride in.

“My main focus every Friday night … is just putting my team in a position to win and executing some pitches and getting some people out,” Crawford said.

He did that Friday, limiting the Huskies to just one run on two hits in four innings of work.

None of the Gophers’ starters went longer than four innings this weekend, and Crawford said pitching coach Todd Oakes is more conservative in that matter.

In the coming weeks, Gophers starters will gradually increase pitch counts in an effort to keep their arms fresh and ready for the Big Ten season.

On Saturday, after starter Jordan Jess and reliever Ty McDevitt each pitched three innings, freshman pitcher Brian Glowicki came in and recorded a three-inning save.

Five different freshmen made their collegiate debuts Saturday, and two freshmen — Tyler Hanson and Matt Stemper — drove in two runs apiece.

“We have no fear placing freshman right in the mix,” Tatera said. “Just having that youth and having the ability to have interchangeable players and that depth is just a great weapon for us to have.”

After practicing inside at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex, the team really gained energy from playing outdoors, Tatera said.

“We were excited to get outside and get to play baseball the way it should be played,” Tatera said.

They’ll get a chance to do it again next weekend against Creighton in Fort Myers, Fla.