Gophers’ Max Meyer adjusts to new roles: game one starter and top hitter

Max Meyer served as the closer last season and tied a program-record with 16 saves.

Max Meyer watches the ball at Siebert Field on Tuesday, April 9.

Jasmin Kemp

Max Meyer watches the ball at Siebert Field on Tuesday, April 9.

Jack Warrick

Minnesota’s best pitcher and one of its top hitters has a relaxed approach to the game.

Gophers starting pitcher and designated hitter Max Meyer approaches the game of baseball like he’s playing whiffle ball in the backyard with his childhood buddies. 

“Either they get a hit or I get them out. It’s just how the game works,” Meyer said. “Just having a relaxed mindset on the mound, too, is always good for me.”

Meyer, a sophomore, doesn’t throw in the bullpen to warm up — he plays catch and heads out to meet the top of the order. “I just let my arm go when I’m on the mound,” he said.

Last year, Meyer would have to be clutch when he would come in to pitch in the last couple innings of a game. The Gophers would be up by one run with two outs and he would need to get a talented batter out to get a victory. Those types of games were natural for Meyer, as he tied a program-record of 16 saves last season. 

This year, as pitching needs have changed, Meyer has taken on the role of the Friday night starter.

“He’s figured it out. It’s a whole different game than going out there and getting three outs,” said head coach John Anderson. “There’s a big difference going from being a Division I closer. … I don’t care what your stuff is … to going through the lineup and throwing 100 to 110 pitches.”

Though Meyer has already pitched more innings than last year in almost half the games, he boasts a lower ERA than last season: a 1.64 with 50 strikeouts. This season, he has taken wins in all three of his Big Ten games starting so far. Meyer is the hardest Minnesota pitcher to hit off of this season; opponents have a .188 batting average against him.

“I’m just throwing everything with conviction,” Meyer said. “I’m going in saying, ‘No one’s going to get a hit off me at any time.'”

The new closer, junior Brett Schulze, was a starter as a freshman and slowly worked into a closer in his third year with the program. He has the most saves this season with four, and the best record on the team (5-0).

“For me, it’s been a part of growing as a person, getting a little older, kind of embracing those challenges a little bit more,” Schulze said. “I don’t really know if, as a freshman, I’d been able to handle that kind of pressure.”

Meyer had just 30 at-bats last season and a .167 batting average, but he’s broken out as one of the top hitters on the Gophers this season, with the second-highest batting average on the team. He worked hard in the offseason after gaining 20 pounds and a starting spot in the batters box.

“I promised him when we recruited him, we’d give him a chance to be a two-way player,” Anderson said. “He had a few at-bats last year, but I just didn’t want to pile too much on his plate, and we didn’t need to last year.”

Now, he’s put up a .311 batting average on triple the at-bats this season and earned a reputation as a clutch hitter. He works at the designated hitter position often when he isn’t starting a Friday game. He said the hitting helps his pitching because he’s busy getting an at-bat every couple innings instead of waiting around to take the mound like last season.

On Tuesday, Meyer hit the first home run of his college career to score two runs and beat North Dakota State University 4-3 in a walk-off. 

The last Gophers player to start at pitcher and hit regularly was Matt Fiedler. Fiedler was drafted his junior year during the 2016 MLB Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals. He tallied a 4.32 ERA on 89.2 innings pitched and a .366 batting average on 238 at-bats in his last season with Minnesota. 

Meyer is expected to start Friday in the first game against Illinois (20-11, 1-5 Big Ten) at Siebert Field if the team doesn’t cancel it due to weather conditions.