Baseball team on verge of 40 wins, tourney bid

by Sarah Mitchell

If shares of stock were sold in the Minnesota baseball team before the season started in February, brokers could have found themselves with an idle commodity.
But any investors who took a chance on the Gophers might now find themselves with a blue chip in their portfolios.
As the season nears its end, Minnesota is a team still striving to play at its full potential, but it does have experience — especially in winning. The Gophers (39-12 overall, 16-8 in the Big Ten) are one win away from meeting two goals: reaching the Big Ten tournament and the 40-win mark.
Before the first pitch of the season was thrown, few people had such high expectations.
“It’s kind of like this year, we had a lot of unproven people who have played,” center fielder Mike Arlt said, mentioning his name in the unending list of new faces in the line-up. “Before the season, papers and people around the team — not within the team, but people without ties — thought we wouldn’t do well because we were so young.
“They just figured all the talent was gone because we had a senior-dominated team last year. But within the team, we all have confidence.”
Members of the team are taking this attitude of exceeding the minimum into their four-game series at Northwestern this weekend.
Minnesota needs only one win to finish as a top-four team in the conference and guarantee itself a place in the Big Ten tournament brackets that have been Gopherless for the past two seasons.
But Minnesota won’t be satisfied with winning just one and making it into the tournament next weekend in Champaign, Ill. The Gophers want to win the series and, in doing so, secure a second-place finish in the conference standings behind Illinois.
“I like our chances,” infielder Mark Devore said. “If we play like we played this week, we’ll do well.”
Minnesota’s chances of leaving Northwestern with a series win are decent; on paper, the Gophers have an edge in offense and pitching.
As a team, Minnesota has compiled a .350 batting average. And it’s not just the heart of the lineup contributing to this hefty average. Eleven Gophers batters will step up to the plate this weekend with a .300 average or better.
But if the offense falls behind like it did during Tuesday’s game against St. Cloud State — a contest in which the Gophers faced a run deficit as large as nine — the not-quite-mature team probably won’t panic.
Minnesota rallied to beat St. Cloud State 14-10 in a game that might have gone the other way in the past years.
“I just think the overall atmosphere this year is a lot different,” Arlt said. “Like last year and the year before, we would be down 3-0 early and we would just go in the tank. We just folded and were like, `We can’t come back.’ This year we don’t have that attitude.”
Minnesota’s performance on the mound has been stable since the Illinois series three weekends ago. Coincidence or not, that series also marked the comeback of starter Ben Birk, who holds the first spot in the pitching rotation.
Birk’s first post-injury outing was a relief stint in game two of the Illinois series, and the sophomore wound up with the win. Since Birk’s return, Minnesota has posted a 9-2 record against Big Ten teams.
This recent domination over conference teams has made Minnesota a contender in the Big Ten — and possibly a contender with other Minnesota teams of the past.
“It’s the best team I have ever played on,” Arlt said of the third Gophers team of which he has been a member. “We’re real young, but we have just played real hard and real consistent. That’s a big reason for our success.”