The Gophers baseball team played its final game of the 1996 regular season Monday knowing there would be no practice the following week.
Minnesota is not accustomed to being left out of the Big Ten playoffs, and Coach John Anderson said this kind of change is not a welcome one.
“I had a bad day,” Anderson said about Monday. “I didn’t like any of it at all.”
What made it more difficult was the Gophers were playing their best baseball of the year. Finally, everything started to click for them at the same time, but just a little too late.
“It’s sad because we played pretty good baseball towards the end,” Gophers senior Rob Smith said after the finale. “I think we played as well as anyone in the league.”
It’s too bad for Minnesota, however, that the Big Ten includes the games at the beginning of the season as well.
The Gophers (30-26, 15-12 in the Big Ten) were plagued with inconsistency, ineligibility, injuries and a suspension this season.
But somehow Minnesota managed to win 13 of its last 18 games and finish fifth in the conference, the lowest since ending the season fifth in 1989. It finished one-and-a-half games behind Michigan, which squeaked into the four-team conference tournament.
The Gophers moved up in the standings by overachieving on offense with timely hitting. They stuck together and tried to make the best of a bad situation.
Minnesota had eight key players out of the lineup for at least a couple of games for various reasons.
Shortstop Steve Huls (wrist), third baseman Rob Smith (academically ineligible), outfielders Bob Keeney (back) and Robb Quinlan (ankle), catcher Bryan Guse (suspension), designated hitter Phil McDermott (flu), and freshmen pitchers Bob DeWitt (arm) and Brad Pautz (academically ineligible).
The Gophers were consequently forced to make short-term decisions concerning freshmen like Craig Selander, who needs a year to bulk up, but was thrown into the starting spot for much of the season at right field.
Anderson said he is proud of the team for finishing the way it did and making the most of what could have been a disastrous season.
“We’re not that far out from where we normally finish,” Anderson said. “Considering everything that’s gone on, we’re pretty lucky we got through the year with some positives. We went through just about everything we can in my opinion. A lot of teams would have just packed it up a long time ago.”
Anderson said playing the freshmen this year contributed to inconsistency in almost every aspect of the game. He hopes it will eventually help the team’s depth next year.
Minnesota will also add a few solid players to the roster, which will give Anderson more room to maneuver athletes into where they could best serve the squad.
The key incoming freshmen are:
ù Matt Scanlon — 3B
He is expected to help with the bat right away. Anderson said he will be taught how to catch and might be used in backup situations.
ù Jonathon Knopf — RHP
He grew up in Miami and has experience in a lot of games. Might be redshirted depending on the future of fellow righty Justin Pederson.
ù Dan McGrath — RHP
The Australian will be able to help right away. He has a deep baseball background and played some amateur baseball.
ù Ben Birk — LHP/OF
He has had some overwhelming success in the St. Paul City Conference this season. He will help in pinch-hitting situations and in the outfield in case of injuries.
ù Mike Uttech — C
He has a career batting average of .376 in three years with the Watertown (Wis.) Goslings and has accepted an offer to walk on.
ù Anderson is also looking for two more catchers — one from the high school ranks for the future, and the other from a junior college who can help right away. Two prospects were in attendance at the Iowa series last weekend and are on top of Anderson’s wish list.
A large group of catchers and pitchers will be important next year as the Big Ten switches its series format from four seven-inning games to nine-inning games on Friday and Sunday and two seven-inning games on Saturday.
Anderson said one catcher will not be able to play the entire weekend. Right now he plans to start Guse 60-75 percent of the time behind the plate and also use him at first base.
The Gophers return all their starters in the field except for Smith and lose only two pitchers (Joe Westfall and Brad Kearin).
Anderson hopes the trials the team went through this season will help him put more experienced players in the lineup next year.
Minnesota will rely on veterans like Huls, Keeney, Guse and McDermott. And at the same time, this year’s freshman class of Quinlan, Selander, Adam Horton, and pitchers DeWitt and Kai Freeman will be used more selectively.
On the mound, Justin Pederson and Mike Diebolt will be the workhorses. Pautz was stellar early in the season, but will have a lot of work to do to catch up to the rest of his class, since he didn’t play this spring.
Pautz will be even further behind because instead of leaving to play ball elsewhere this summer, like most of his teammates, he will be taking summer classes.
Anderson said pitching and defense are the two areas he would most like to improve. And with more depth, he sees a chance to do it.
Still, he is hoping to see what he has to work with during fall practice.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Anderson said. “I’m excited from the standpoint of what we’ve gone through in the last couple of years. I’m anxious to take another step. We may not take that step, but I will be surprised if we don’t.”
Note: Juniors Tony Felling and Ryan Beers were selected academic All-Big Ten this season for the Gophers.