U baseball season will be remembered

Tim Klobuchar

Certain parts of the 1997 season will gnaw at the Gophers baseball team for a long time: its 8-9 record in one-run games, Illinois’ shocking and ill-timed sweep at Siebert Field in late April, and its three games that were never played because of bad weather.
But the Gophers, even while taking a rare sick day from the Big Ten tournament, still had a successful season in other ways. Pitcher Mike Diebolt broke Dave Winfield’s school single-season strikeout record, Robb Quinlan topped the single-season mark in doubles, and the offense hit 64 homers (27 more than last year) and tied a school record with a .342 batting average.
The Gophers had a great offense to go along with decent pitching and defense. If the weather was better and if they could have turned around just a few of the one-run games, said Gophers coach John Anderson, “We were not far away from having one of the best seasons in school history.”
Here’s a look back at a season that contained plenty of highlights, even though the team was a Big Ten tournament absentee for just the third time in Anderson’s 16 years:
Biggest Surprises (Pleasant). Troy Stein and Ted Zrust. Stein, a senior who was supposed to play behind freshman Ben Birk in center field, turned into one of the Gophers’ most solid players.
He hit .321 with six homers and was a fixture in the lead-off spot. He improved so much that Anderson said there’s now talk of him being drafted next month.
Zrust almost quit the team after Anderson left him behind for the spring trip this season for violating team rules. The submarine-style right-hander ended up being invaluable, winning six games, saving four out of the bullpen and having a minuscule 2.19 ERA.
Biggest Surprise (Disappointment). Justin Pederson. The senior right-hander made the third-team all-Big Ten team, but he still fell short of expectations, compiling a 4-6 record with a lofty 6.22 ERA. His numbers coming into the year were 17-8, 4.32.
Best Platoon Since Oliver Stone. Craig Selander and Mark Groebner, right field. Selander, a sophomore, and Groebner, a junior, were a lethal tandem for opposing pitchers, combining for a .369 batting average, 18 home runs and 73 RBIs.
This Could’ve Happened to Cal Ripken, Jr., Award. Senior infielder Eric Welter had 94 consecutive starts for the Gophers before getting hit in the head with a line drive during batting practice before an April 23 game against Southwest State.
Welter hit .375 overall and led the Gophers in Big Ten games with a .413 average.
Best Use of Process of Elimination. Discovering shortstop Mark Devore. Minnesota tried Quinlan there, moved him back to left field, tried sophomore Matt Brosseau there, then found Devore in time for the Big Ten season. The redshirt freshman played excellent defense, and hit .309 to boot.
Fellow freshman Matt Scanlon also showed tremendous potential at third base, hitting .404 in less than 100 at-bats and showing off a powerful right arm.
Purple Heart, Ribs, Shoulder, etc. Award. Stein. He was hit by a pitch 13 times this season, only six fewer times than he was walked.
Best Quote. “I think there’s someone out there who has a doll with number 23 on it, poking needles in it or something” — injury-riddled infielder Bob Keeney, less than a week after he broke a toe on his right foot while batting against Michigan.
He missed the next two Big Ten series, one because of the toe, one because of his chronically bad back.
Keeney showed at the end of the season what he’s capable of when completely healthy. He went 17-for-30 with three homers and 11 RBIs in Minnesota’s last two Big Ten series.
Most Fortuitous Ejection, Opponent. Brian Mitchell, Iowa. The Hawkeyes third baseman was tossed after directing an eight-letter synonym for “poppycock” towards the home plate umpire regarding ball-and-strike calls. Mitchell not only had the pleasure of missing the rest of the 13-5 loss on May 3, but he also got to spend more quality time in the Hawkeyes’ brand new locker rooms, dedicated that day.
Best Name, Opponent. Joe “Spanky” McFarland, head coach, Northern Illinois.
Best Media Guide Photo, Opponent. Joe “Spanky” McFarland, head coach, Northern Illinois. McFarland was pictured in his Elvis impersonator garb that he had to wear after he lost a bet to his players last year.
Season in a Nutshell Award. April 18 at Ohio State. The Gophers trailed 6-0 early, but took an 8-7 lead when catcher Bryan Guse hit a dramatic three-run homer in the ninth. The Buckeyes tied the game in the bottom half on a lost fly ball in the sun. Minnesota jumped ahead in the 10th. Ohio State tied the score on a misjudged ground ball that went for a hit, and won it on an RBI single later in the inning – final score, 11-10.
“That one will be remembered,” Anderson said. “Just the weirdness of how we lost it. I don’t ever remember losing a game like that, and I don’t want to ever again.”
Minnesota experienced the resiliency followed by heartache theme again at the end of the season. The Gophers won seven of their last eight Big Ten games after the Illinois sweep, but got no help from the teams playing their closest competitors. They finished one-half game out of the tournament.