U baseball coach eyes perfect mold for team

Tim Klobuchar

The Gophers baseball team and coach John Anderson would be ecstatic if its 1-6 record on its season-opening road trip lulled future opponents into a false sense of security.
But by going with basically the same nine players in the same positions throughout the Southern swing, Anderson hopes he didn’t do the same to his starting lineup.
That’s because, thanks to a deep bench that wasn’t there last year, Anderson plans to use many different players in different positions the rest of the season. Even established players such as Bob Keeney and Robb Quinlan will be moved around. Anderson sees that as the best strategy to win the Gophers’ first Big Ten title since 1992.
“We have some depth,” Anderson said. “As manager, I have to make the right decisions at the right time. We have to find out who can do what, and where I can put them.”
Minnesota finished 30-26 last season, 15-12 in the Big Ten. The fifth-place finish knocked the Gophers out of the post-season tournament for the first time since 1989.
On the surface, it looks like the Gophers have enough talent to avoid a repeat. But Anderson’s problem is which talent will be on the field, and where and when it will play. Here’s a look at some of the possibilities, along with the positions that are secured:
Keeney, limited to just 40 games last year because of a back injury, has recovered from off-season surgery and is swinging the bat pain-free. That’s not the only change. The senior started in center field last season but is being moved back to the infield. He’s used to that — he played mostly second base his first two years.
This time, though, he’s being asked to play third base, a position he’s adapted to extraordinarily well thus far.
“I’m amazed at the way Bob played for never having played there before,” Anderson said.
Freshman Matt Scanlon should also see time there, but Minnesota needs Keeney’s bat in the line-up (.337 career average in the Big Ten), so he could play some at second base or the outfield.
With Quinlan moving back to the outfield, sophomore Matt Brosseau has the job for now at shortstop. Freshman Mark DeVore and Quinlan will back him up.
Senior Eric Welter started every game at second base last year, and figures to stay there most of this year. He is, however, the best defensive first baseman left on the team since Adam Horton will redshirt. Welter started one game at first on the road trip.
Horton started at first base last year, mainly because of his defense, but will redshirt this year so he could work on his swing. In his place is senior Ben Griffin, who is off to a good start offensively (.333 with a home run). Minnesota needs the offense more than defense because it lost its two leading home run hitters from a year ago in Rob Smith (graduation) and Steve Huls (left early for the pros).
Senior Phil McDermott will be the designated (and clean-up) hitter, with some action at first. He hit only three home runs a year ago, which was partly because he lost a lot of weight during a long bout with the flu.
“I know I have to produce this year,” McDermott said. “I like that expectation, and I know I can handle that.”
McDermott, along with senior catcher Bryan Guse, form the heart of the Gophers order. Both of them, along with outfielder Troy Stein and pitcher Justin Pederson, played in the Ohio-based Great Lakes League this summer.
Guse, who struggled defensively in his first year behind the plate in 1996, worked on his blocking and throwing over the summer. Fortunately, he had the time for it.
He said many of the players in the league had regular jobs, but he made enough money in two weeks working as a cleaner at the Huffy factory in Celina, Ohio, to make ends meet for the summer.
The fewer hours at work translated into more hours on the field. The end result has been a huge improvement for Guse behind the plate. He threw out nine of 16 runners who tried to steal on him on the road trip.
“He deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done,” Anderson said. “He’s so much better than he was a year ago.”
Quinlan played left field for the last half of last season, but was moved to shortstop, his high school position, at the beginning of this year.
Anderson said before the trip he could see the move effecting Quinlan’s hitting because of his extensive work at improving his defense at shortstop. His fears were realized when Quinlan got just one hit in 21 at-bats in the first seven games. He hit .325 as a freshman last season.
He fielded much better than Anderson hoped (just one error) but will still be moved back to left field. Anderson said some of Quinlan’s trouble at the plate is due to slumps every player endures. Anderson, however, said he is making the move because Quinlan’s future is not at shortstop.
“I wouldn’t play there if I were to go on to the next level,” Quinlan said.
Stein had been the regular left fielder, and the senior will still be in the outfield somewhere much of the time because of his defense. He and freshman Ben Birk are the best defensive outfielders on the team. Stein, Birk and sophomore Mike Arlt all figure to play some center field.
Sophomore Craig Selander will play against all but a few left-handed pitchers, when junior Mark Groebner might spell him. Selander hit .316 last season and was one of the best clutch hitters on the team.
“He had a lot of big hits last year,” Anderson said. “It’s hard to find guys like him who get it done with runners in scoring position.”
It had to be scary for opposing teams knowing that Pederson, who could overpower hitters with his low-90s fastball, has a nickname, “Snakes,” that celebrates the break on his slider. Now the senior has added a change-up to his repertoire, making the prospects grim for opposing hitters.
Pederson, who led Minnesota in wins last year, will team up with senior southpaw Mike Diebolt to form an imposing 1-2 starting duo for the Gophers.
Diebolt had a career earned run average of 7.71 coming into this season but has erased those memories with a brilliant start. He’s 0-1, but has allowed just one earned run in 16 innings with 21 strikeouts.
Sophomore Brad Pautz, who was academically ineligible for most of last season, is a strong third starter, though he’s been hit hard in his first two starts.
“As a group, those three guys are the most talented I’ve had here,” said 10th-year pitching coach Mike Dee. “And the only guys I’ve coached that are in the same category as Pederson and Diebolt are Scott Bakkum and Denny Neagle.”
Tony Felling or Jason Dobis will probably be the fourth starter, with Ted Zrust, Kelly Werner and Adam Williams seeing the most action out of the bullpen. Of course, it’s still too early to predict the exact roles of the pitchers, just as it is for the other eight positions.
“It’s going to be a factor,” Anderson said of the bevy of players at his disposal. “A lot will depend on whether winning is more important than individual accomplishments.”