Minnesota preparing for speedy Illinois team

Minnesota starter Chauncy Handran admits he doesnâÄôt know much about IllinoisâÄô baseball team, but he knows this: âÄúThey run a lot.âÄù The 23rd-ranked Gophers (22-10 overall, 6-2 Big Ten) will learn just how much âÄúa LOTâÄù is starting this evening at 6:05 p.m. when they play their first of a three-game series against the Illini (21-10, 6-3) at Illinois Field in Champaign, Ill. The series continues Saturday at 3:05 p.m. and concludes Sunday at 1:05 p.m. HandranâÄôs emphasis of âÄúlotâÄù does accurately reflect IllinoisâÄô strategy on the basepaths, which seems to be run, then run, then run some more. The Illini have attempted 84 steals in 31 games. Not surprisingly, they lead the Big Ten in stolen bases with 58. They have speed, no denying that. But Illinois constantly running may be like a pitcher throwing nothing but fastballs âÄì eventually it stops working. Which would explain why the Illini also lead the conference in caught stealing. Of course, stealing is much more than statistics. The ninety feet from first to second have inning-and game-altering potential. A successful steal puts a man in scoring position and eliminates the double play ball. Get caught and any semblance of offensive momentum disappears. Even the threat of a steal can be effective. If a pitcher is thinking more about the baserunner than the batter, the man at the plate has a decided advantage. Against Illinois, the Gophers will be dealing more with the guarantee of a steal rather than the threat, which simplifies things slightly, but from a purely probabilistic standpoint, the Illini are sure to swipe a few bases if they put men on board. The obvious solution is to prevent runners from reaching; something MinnesotaâÄôs starters have shown an affinity for this year. Opposing batters are hitting just .186 against senior Tom Buske, who is slated to pitch Saturday. They donâÄôt fare much better against Handran, batting .238. On the off chance that an Illinois batter does reach base, however, he has another arm to worry about âÄì junior catcher Kyle KnudsonâÄôs. Knudson has foiled 17 attempted steals, tops in the Big Ten. NoheltyâÄôs return still uncertain Senior Matt Nohelty, who underwent major surgery on his throwing shoulder during the offseason, has yet to learn when he will be able to return to MinnesotaâÄôs outfield. âÄúItâÄôs taking a little bit longer than we hoped, but hopefully in a short period of time âÄì itâÄôs hard to put a date on it âÄì but hopefully [IâÄôll be back in the field] soon,âÄù Nohelty said before practice Thursday. Head coach John Anderson expected Nohelty, a center-fielder who has still been able to bat lead-off this season at designated hitter, to be back on the field by now. But NoheltyâÄôs rehab is progressing slower than expected, Anderson said. The outfield has undoubtedly missed him but remained intact, although itâÄôs been musical chairs of sorts recently, especially because junior Eric Decker, who has replaced Nohelty in center, is day-to-day with soreness in his shoulder. Despite making what Anderson called âÄúnegative physical adjustmentsâÄù because of his shoulder, Nohelty has been productive at the plate and on the bases; heâÄôs batting .348, has scored 34 runs and leads the team in stolen bases with 12. Still, heâÄôs itching to get back on the field. âÄúIâÄôm getting anxious,âÄù Nohelty said. âÄúItâÄôs been a long process but hopefully weâÄôre getting close to the end.âÄù