Mentally stronger from a season ago, Minnesota takes on UNI

Last season, the Minnesota baseball team had 24 games decided by two runs or less. It lost 17 of them . The Gophers probably want to be reminded of that statistic as much as they want to keep hearing about how their 2008 campaign was the teamâÄôs worst in more than 60 years. That is, not at all. But both are being brought up because MinnesotaâÄôs start to the 2009 season is already much different than 2008. Through seven games this season, the Gophers are 5-2 . The Gophers went 3-4 in their first seven games last season. Also in contrast to 2008, Minnesota has been successful in tight games. Already the Gophers have played in three games decided by a single run; theyâÄôve won all three. Commanding wins of 7-2 against Michigan State and 13-3 against UC-Santa Barbara round out their resume for the young season . So whatâÄôs changed? A year of experience and the galvanizing effect of a frustrating season certainly helps, but with three redshirt freshman starting in the infield, that canâÄôt be the only answer. So head coach John Anderson has another. âÄúIâÄôve always said the most important part of your body in baseball is from the neck up and if you think [the mental aspect] is 75 or 80 percent of the game then you better spend a similar amount of time on that part of it,âÄù he said. âÄúWe do a lot of that, we focus a lot on the emotional side of the game and teaching them the skill sets to be a consistent and optimal performer as a team and individually.âÄù The attention to the mental and emotional part of the game has paid off so far. ItâÄôs allowed sophomore reliever Scott Matyas to pitch out of a ninth inning, bases loaded jam with the game tied. ItâÄôs sparked a two-out, bottom of the ninth rally that erased a two-run deficit against Hawaii and propelled the Gophers to a 5-4 win. âÄúYou donâÄôt focus on the score, the scoreboard or the importance of a given situation and just focus on executing the pitch or seeing the ball and hitting the ball and making plays on defense,âÄù Anderson said. âÄúI think youâÄôve got a better chance than if you get in a place where you think âÄòwe have toâÄô or âÄòwe need to.âÄô âÄù Of course, talent helps in the tough situations too. âÄúI think one through nine we have a great lineup and anybody can deliver that game-winning hit,âÄù junior center fielder Eric Decker said, referring to senior left fielder Jon HummelâÄôs two-run walk-off single on Sunday against Hawaii . âÄú[He] was in the eight spot and heâÄôs the one that won the game for us. Just seeing that I think gives all the players confidence in each other.âÄù Wednesday, Minnesota will try to build off the momentum it has built up when Northern Iowa visits the Metrodome at 6:35 p.m . Junior Allen Bechstein will start for the Gophers but will be on a strict pitch count, Anderson said. He expects four or five pitchers to appear, possibly including righty reliever Cullen Sexton, this weekâÄôs Big Ten pitcher of the week . Sexton totaled 4.1 scoreless innings between Friday and Sunday, and has yet to allow a run in 6.2 innings this season. His role last weekend was a combination of reliever and closer âÄî he entered FridayâÄôs game with one out in the seventh inning and pitched the remainder of the game, picking up his first save of the season, and on Sunday he pitched 1.2 innings and tallied his second win of the year thanks to HummelâÄôs walk-off. He too is noticing the difference in the 2009 Gophers. âÄú[Senior Matt] Nohelty was saying, âÄòthe sign of a good team is a team that can win close games,âÄôâÄù Sexton said. âÄúAlready being involved in three of them this year âĦ itâÄôs exciting when you can be on the upper end of those. Last year, that could have made a big difference, we lost quite a few close games and if we can win those this year thatâÄôs a big difference in the season.âÄù