Improved pitching performances helps U

by Aaron Blake

Minnesota’s baseball team went into this season expecting big things from its pitching staff, and the phrase “best in the Big Ten” came up several times.

Appropriately, the Gophers’ rise to a conference tie for first place has been accompanied by improved performances from their pitchers.

Despite a couple of injuries, Minnesota’s staff has shown its experience and talent in recent weeks and will try to keep that momentum going this weekend in a four-game series versus Purdue at Siebert Field.

The Gophers (23-15, 10-6 Big Ten) take on the Boilermakers (20-18, 9-7) at 6:30 p.m. Friday, twice Saturday beginning at 2 p.m. and once more at 1 p.m. Sunday.

“Our pitching staff is coming around,” left fielder Tony Leseman said. “They’re making quality pitches and minimizing their mistakes. They’re doing a better job, day after day, throwing strikes and making (opponents) hit the ball.

“They struggled a little bit in the beginning, but our entire team struggled a little bit in the beginning.”

Heading into this weekend’s games against Purdue, Minnesota’s team ERA of 4.33 ranks first in the Big Ten. Over the last six games, Gophers pitchers have allowed just 17 earned runs.

Regular Friday starter Glen Perkins has continued his dominance against Big Ten competition. He is now 12-0 in his career against conference opponents.

This season, the Gophers’ ace started somewhat slow, but is 3-0 with a 1.85 ERA in four Big Ten starts. He has 26 strikeouts in 34.0 innings pitched in those four games.

“Perk’s a tone-setter for us right now,” first baseman Andy Hunter said. “We look for a big start out of him. We go give him a few runs early and then set the table for the weekend. From there, we need to just keep plugging along.”

But the rest of the Minnesota rotation and bullpen has been pieced together lately.

Senior Craig Molldrem, who usually starts the series’ second game after Perkins, is still day-to-day with a shoulder problem. He missed last weekend’s series against Northwestern, and coach John Anderson said he will be used sparingly, if at all, this weekend.

Molldrem has the top ERA among Minnesota starters at 3.13.

Junior Matt Loberg has pitched a pair of one-inning stints since being hit in the elbow by a line drive, and Anderson said he should be fine.

With Molldrem and Loberg out of the rotation last weekend, sophomore Brian Bull and freshman Cole DeVries each got starts. It was Jay Gagner, though, who earned himself a start this weekend.

Gagner pitched seven scoreless innings and recorded the win in Sunday’s game against the Wildcats. He has a 12-inning scoreless streak and a team-leading 2.21 ERA.

Anderson said Gagner will start this weekend and Bull could as well.

“We’re getting contributions from a lot of people,” Anderson said. “In a perfect world, we’d like to run the same guys out there every weekend all the time. But I’m not sure that’s reality.

“That’s why we’ve always prided ourselves on trying to put together a 25-man roster that has some depth.”

Oslin tosses in bullpen

Freshman Josh Oslin, who hasn’t pitched since April 3, threw out of the bullpen on Wednesday, and Anderson will decide today whether he will be available this weekend.