At this point last season, Minnesota’s baseball team was 10-0 and cruising toward its second-straight Big Ten regular season title. This season, the Gophers are 7-5 and lodged in a four-way tie for second place in the conference.
Last weekend’s four-game split with Penn State at Siebert Field provided only a semisuccessful and brief respite from a road-heavy schedule, and now the team finds itself in an unfamiliar position – the middle of the pack.
Oh yeah, and they’re back on the road again.
The Gophers (19-14, 7-5 Big Ten) head to Evanston, Ill., where they will take on Northwestern (15-16-1, 5-7) at 3 p.m. today at Rocky Miller Park, twice Saturday starting at 1 p.m. and once Sunday at 1 p.m.
Minnesota coach John Anderson said this weekend is a perfect opportunity for his team to position itself before it closes the season with three of four series at home.
Last year, eight of the Gophers’ first 10 Big Ten wins came in the comfortable confines of Siebert.
“We won some close games at home and a couple in the last at-bat,” Anderson said. “Now we’re doing the reverse – we’re playing on the road, and we’re finishing up at home.
“This would be a good weekend to get something started because after this weekend we only have one more road series the rest of the year.”
Following the Wildcats series, Minnesota will play host to Purdue and Iowa on successive weekends. Then after a four-game set at Illinois, first-place Ohio State (17-14, 8-4) will come to town for what could possibly be a title-deciding series.
But before all that, the Gophers need to get things going in the right direction against Northwestern.
Anderson said he is noticing improvement on offense. Against Penn State, the team relied a lot on home runs for offense – they hit seven in the first three games of the series.
But first baseman Andy Hunter knows his team needs to manufacture runs too, as they did in a 17-2 win over North Dakota State on Wednesday.
“We’re a team that’s going to continue to hit a lot of doubles, and we’ll score some runs that way,” Hunter said. “This has just been a fun stretch to ride on.”
Second baseman Luke MacLean said his team has been somewhat inconsistent offensively. But he chalks up the early bumps in the road to the inexperience and not the talent on the team.
As the team heads toward the midway point of the conference season, MacLean said they are approaching their potential.
“(Last year) it seemed like we breezed through every single weekend,” MacLean said. “It was unbelievable. It’s going to be a lot different this year. Our team’s going to have to battle for it.”
The injury report
Starting pitcher Matt Loberg will make the trip to Evanston after taking a line drive to the right elbow Wednesday. If he cannot play this weekend, Anderson said, sophomore Tim Theis will probably start in his place.
Anderson also said the team decided to hold freshman reliever Josh Oslin out one more week in hopes of preparing him for next weekend versus Purdue. Oslin has a shoulder injury.
Catcher Jake Elder sat out Wednesday’s game with complications to an injury suffered April 9 against Indiana, Anderson said, but he should be fine for this weekend.