New infield will be key in quest for Big Ten title

Robert Mews

Unfamiliar places and faces ó thatís what Minnesotaís baseball team will face this season to achieve a familiar place ó its fourth Big Ten title in five years.

The Gophers were unable to collect a fourth consecutive Big Ten Championship last season due to multiple injuries. Still, getting back to championship form will take time with a tough schedule, revamped infield and a new home location this season.

Minnesota starts the season playing at Florida State. The Seminoles are ranked 14th in the nation and they donít lose much at home ó an all-time winning percentage of .835 at Dick Howser Stadium.

The competition doesnít get any easier from there. They play Arizona, Notre Dame and 25th-ranked Nebraska at home for the Dairy Queen Classic March 3 through 5.

ìThatís tradition for Minnesota,î first baseman Andy Hunter said. ìWe like to just come out and test ourselves right away and kind of see where we stand.î

Coach John Anderson said the same.

ìIt gets our players attention earlier in the year,î Anderson said. ìI donít think youíre getting any false expectations for certain players when theyíre playing against great competition.î

That added pressure may be tough early on given that Minnesota is replacing half of its infield. Starters Matt Fornasiere (shortstop), David Hrncirik (third base) and Jake Elder (catcher) are gone.

ìThe left side is going to be different because I got used to how the ball comes across differently,î Hunter said of the two infield departures. ìWe have a lot of guys that can play and itís just a matter of seeing where all the pieces fit in.î

One of those pieces most likely will be All-American junior college transfer Dan Lyons playing at shortstop.

At Iowa Central, he batted .435, with 48 RBIs and 27 stolen bases.

Hunter keeps a formidable player at first base with his eight home runs and 47 RBIs from last season.

Third base will most likely will be filled by Joe Maciej. Maciej came on late last season and hit for .432 and a .705 slugging percentage.

ìBased on what Iíve seen in fall and winter practice,î Anderson said, ìIím confident that those guys are ready to step in there and compete at this level, especially as they get more experience.î

The catcher position may be a little different though.

ìBehind the plate is wide open right now,î Anderson said. ìFour guys competing for that job, and Iím not sure anybodyís grabbed it.î

Kevin Carlson started at catcher for the pro-alumni game, but John Arlt and Jeff DeSmidt played there as well.

Anderson said he hopes to have the position figured out by the end of March.

For the pitchers, a sustained relationship with who is behind the plate may be the key to gaining comfort in their commands.

ìYou know, each catcher that you throw to, itís always going to be different,î pitcher Cole DeVries said. ìItís more of a comfort thing and just getting used to how you and the catcher interact with one another.î

DeVries is the only returnee from last season with 10 or more starts. He started 13 games and threw three complete ones on a way to a 3-6 record with 57 strikeouts.

DeVries said heís added a two-seam fastball to his arsenal that includes a changeup and a curveball.

Junior pitcher John Gaub was named preseason Big Ten Pitcher of the Year. Gaub led the Gophers with 65 strikeouts, seven saves, and a 2.08 ERA last season.

As for the outfield, Anderson said the team has speed and depth.

ìWe have some speed in the outfield,î Anderson said. ìItís probably the most talented outfield group weíve had.î

All those variables will come under the Metrodome roof this season. Minnesota usually plays its games at Siebert Field, but that will not be the case this season.

Anderson said he likes the Metrodome.

ìItís a hitterís park,î he said. ìItís a line-drive hitterís park. Itís a gap-to-gap park. Itís a big park. Thereís no cheap home runs.î

He also added that those equations and the Gophers speed translate into an advantage that could make the Metrodome a formable home.

ìI think the facility is a great match for this team,î Anderson said.