Gophers will rely on laid-back lefty

Isaksson pitched the team to a Big Ten tourney title in ’10.

by Andrew Baker

Ask Gophers starting pitcher Phil Isaksson about his stuff, and heâÄôll tell you itâÄôs nothing special.
At 6 feet tall, the unimposing senior carries himself with a laid-back demeanor and self-deprecating sense of humor, but donâÄôt mistake his humility for a lack of confidence.
He boasts the lowest ERA (3.14) of any of the GophersâÄô three primary starters.
âÄúI give a lot of credit to [the GophersâÄô coaching staff] for having trust in me âĦ because IâÄôve got certainly below-average stuff for a lot of college pitchers,âÄù Isaksson said Thursday after a 5-1 loss to Ohio State in the second game of a doubleheader at Target Field.
After the Gophers clinched a Big Ten Tournament berth in the dayâÄôs first game with a 3-2 walk-off victory, Isaksson took the mound for the nightcap, his last-ever home start for the team. He pitched four scoreless innings before giving up a two-run triple âÄî on a fly ball misjudged by center fielder Justin Gominsky âÄî and a sacrifice grounder in the fifth to give him three earned runs and ultimately, the loss.
ItâÄôs been that kind of year for Isaksson.
As Gophers pitching coach Todd Oakes noted, despite having the lowest ERA among MinnesotaâÄôs starters, IsakssonâÄôs win-loss record is just 3-5 on the season.  âÄúThat tells you one thing,âÄù Oakes said, âÄúthat he hasnâÄôt been getting a lot of run support.âÄù
While his record may not always reflect it, Isaksson historically has put the Gophers in position to win games, particularly important games against tough opponents.
In 18 appearances last year, Isaksson went 6-2 with a 3.72 ERA in a season which culminated in a five-hit, five-strikeout victory over Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament Championship.
The fifth-seeded Gophers will again need to rely on IsakssonâÄôs arm in this yearâÄôs tournament, particularly in light of their spotty offense, if they want to defend their title.
With the tournament starting on Wednesday, and assuming Todd OakesâÄô son TJ gets the start in the opening game against the fourth-seeded Buckeyes, Isaksson will have had a full weekâÄôs rest between starts, which will be crucial as he is known to recover slowly.
âÄúPhilâÄôs got the body of a 45-year-old,âÄù joked the elder Oakes. âÄúYouâÄôve got to get him whirlpools and ice and massages âĦ I donâÄôt know what else, if he burns incense at home or what the deal is.âÄù
All kidding aside, Isaksson has been vital to the teamâÄôs success over the last two seasons.
Like this year, IsakssonâÄôs win-loss record in 2010 belied an even stronger season performance. Appearing out of the bullpen during the regular season, he pitched four scoreless innings against then- No. 11 Louisville on Feb. 28 in a game the Gophers ultimately lost.
Similarly, in a game Isaksson started against then-No. 21 Alabama on March 17, he gave up just three hits and two runs in 5 2/3 innings but took a no-decision after the bullpen gave up seven runs in a 9-4 defeat.
That his ERA and opponentsâÄô batting average have stayed so low throughout the past two seasons, especially against such power-heavy lineups, is all the more impressive given that Isaksson âÄî who uses a fastball, changeup and curveball âÄî is not a strikeout pitcher.
Asked what younger Gophers pitchers like up-and-coming southpaw reliever Tom Windle have learned from Isaksson, head coach John Anderson said, âÄúI think [Isaksson] has taught people that itâÄôs not just about velocity, itâÄôs about mixing three pitches and locating three pitches âĦ He pitches with no fear and I think young kids need to see that.âÄù
A lack of fear is essential for pitchers who rely on contact, as Isaksson demonstrated early against the Buckeyes. After loading the bases with one out in the first inning, Isaksson looked to be in trouble but averted catastrophe by getting Buckeyes infielder Matt Streng to hit into a double play.
Isaksson said he has learned how to stay calm and use his off-speed pitches to work out of such predicaments, and to not view them as pressure situations. That mindset will likely come in handy during the tournament.
On the mound Iskasson has a knack for throwing the right pitch at the right time, and despite being visibly disappointed over ThursdayâÄôs loss while talking to media after the game, he slipped in a couple  of wry jokes just as impeccably.
Asked for his take on the early success of Windle, who is 6-2 with a 1.93 ERA, Isaksson quipped, âÄúIâÄôm just glad he hasnâÄôt taken my job yet.âÄù