Gophers baseball coach John Anderson once stepped off his own measurements of Ohio State’s old ballpark, Trautman Field.
The signs said it was 330 feet down the lines. Anderson came up with 305 and 320. But it was the distance to center field that was the most offensive.
“It couldn’t have been more than 340 or 350,” Anderson said.
With a bandbox stadium like that, it’s no wonder the Buckeyes were known as an offensive juggernaut. Right?
That’s one reason, but now that Ohio State has moved into its new home — conventional-distance Bill Davis Stadium — the Buckeyes are proving that they can still score runs, no matter how far away the fences are.
Ohio State is hitting .326 as a team with 45 homers in 37 games, so the Buckeyes’ bats are still Minnesota’s main concern as the third-place Gophers travel to Columbus for a crucial four-game series with second-place Ohio State.
“In the past, they’d just recruit guys for their field,” Gophers outfielder Mark Groebner said. “They’d just hit home run after home run, so our main concern is their hitting.”
The Gophers, 6-3 in the Big Ten, trail the 11-5 Buckeyes by percentage points in the standings. Ohio State has played one more series than Minnesota so far this season, and the Gophers have also lost three games because of weather that won’t be rescheduled.
Those cancellations make slip-ups all the more damaging to the Gophers’ hopes of winning the Big Ten regular season championship. A bad series against the Buckeyes wouldn’t erase those hopes, but it might shift Minnesota’s attention to simply making the Big Ten tournament, which includes the top four teams.
“I think it’s an important series,” Anderson said. “How we come out of it could define where we end up in the league.”
Ohio State won every Big Ten regular season title between 1991 and 1995 before slipping to sixth last season. Although the Buckeyes have improved this year, Anderson still doesn’t see them, or anyone, as the favorite.
Ohio State isn’t any more talented than any of the other upper-echelon teams in the league, he said, and if their bats can be quieted, the Buckeyes might have a more difficult time beating teams in other areas.
“We’ll key on keeping the ball in the ballpark,” Anderson said. “Historically, if you do that, you have a good chance to win. They don’t necessarily beat you with pitching and defense, and they don’t hit and run or bunt too much. They generally try to go for the big innings.”
The Gophers might have a chance for a few big innings of their own, especially once they get past the Buckeyes’ top two starters, Justin Fry and Eric Thompson. That pair is a combined 13-3 with a 2.98 earned run average. The normal third and fourth starters, Phil Vogelmeier and Jason Turner, are 3-4 with a hefty 7.29 ERA.
Minnesota is in roughly the same situation. Mike Diebolt is having an outstanding season, and Justin Pederson, while struggling most of the season, looked good against Penn State last weekend and is a proven performer. The Gophers’ other two starters, Adam Williams and Tony Felling, have been shaky.
This means that if Ohio State beats either Diebolt or Pederson today (Diebolt is recovering from the flu, and Anderson isn’t sure if he will pitch him today or Saturday), the Gophers could be in trouble in the other games as well.
Although Minnesota is quite capable itself of scoring runs (.325 team batting average and 31 homers), the last thing the Gophers want is an all-out score-a-thon.
“With a team like Ohio State, you don’t necessarily want the game to be like that,” Gophers reliever Ted Zrust said. “They can outslug anybody. That’s the main thing you want to stay away from.”
Injury notes: Senior third baseman Bob Keeney’s back has been bothering him again, but he will still play this weekend. Anderson said he might just play him against left-handed pitching, and play freshman lefty Matt Scanlon against right-handers.
Senior center fielder Troy Stein was hit by a pitch on the left elbow in games both Tuesday and Wednesday. He was removed from the second game of Wednesday’s doubleheader, but Anderson said he will play this weekend.