Minnesota rotation locked and ready

Three of the team’s ERA leaders will make up the starting rotation.

by Ben Gotz

With nine Big Ten championships under his belt, Minnesota head coach John Anderson knows how to win at the college level.

And he says the winning formula isn’t all that complicated.

“I don’t think you can have a championship team or a real competitive team unless you can pitch,” Anderson said. “It starts on the mound.”

A trio of familiar faces will start on the mound for opening weekend — ones who combined for nearly 187 innings pitched with the team last year.

Senior Ben Meyer, junior Dalton Sawyer and senior Neal Kunik were three of Minnesota’s top pitchers in earned run average last season, all keeping their ERAs lower than 3.00.

“We’re going to throw strikes,” Meyer said. “We’re going to go out there, locate our fastball, pitch to our strengths and get guys to get themselves out. That’s what [pitching coach Todd] Oakes and [interim pitching coach Scott] Matyas have been preaching to us.”

Meyer will serve as the team’s Friday starter after pitching the most innings on the team while still having the team’s lowest ERA at 2.39.

“He’s a great competitor,” Anderson said. “He’s a three-pitch guy. I can’t remember a game really in his career where we haven’t had a chance when he’s been on the mound. He’ll be a great Friday guy.”

Meyer said it’s easier to settle into a groove during the week when he knows ahead of time what day he’s going to pitch.

“It’s kind of nice,” he said. “You can get into that routine where you know which day you’re going to pitch, and you can get your bullpen in. I really like getting into the routine, getting my running in certain days, lifting on certain days and getting ready for that opening day every Friday night.”

Kunik will be the team’s Sunday starter after making 11 appearances for the team last year, including five starts.

But the newcomer to the Gophers’ rotation is Sawyer, the lone lefty of the trio, who will get the ball in between Meyer and Kunik.

Sawyer appeared in 21 games for the Gophers last year out of the bullpen, recording six saves.

“He’s a three-pitch guy, and we’ll see how he handles starting,” Anderson said.

One important piece the Gophers won’t have returning — at least right away — is Oakes.

The longtime pitching coach is recovering from acute myeloid leukemia that’s in remission for the second time.

In his place, former Minnesota closer and Detroit Tigers draft pick Matyas is coaching and will be in the dugout with the team this weekend.

“He’s very important,” Meyer said of Oakes. “He’s a mentor to a lot of us. [It’s] very inspirational what he’s gone through, and he’s a fighter, so a lot of that really translates to how we play, I think.”

If the pitching staff is able to put up a fight every night, Minnesota has a good chance at success this season.

“We’ve never had a problem with pitching,” senior infielder Tony Skjefte said. “Our pitching is always there for us — they always keep us in games.”