Gophers still figuring out pieces to pitching puzzle

Minnesota has had to tinker with its starting rotation this season.

Pitcher/outfielder Matt Fiedler pitches the ball during a game against Northwestern at Siebert Field on Saturday.

Juliet Farmer

Pitcher/outfielder Matt Fiedler pitches the ball during a game against Northwestern at Siebert Field on Saturday.

by Ben Gotz

In two games over the weekend, the Gophers’ pitching problem seemed like it had been resolved.

Senior Ben Meyer had his best outing of the season on Friday in an 8-3 victory over Northwestern, coming two outs shy of a complete game.

Pitching wasn’t the team’s problem on Saturday either, as the Gophers allowed only two runs in 13 innings in their 2-1 loss.

But on Sunday, Minnesota’s pitching staff came unglued and allowed 20 hits and 19 runs in a loss. The Wildcats scored runs in all but one inning of the game.

Two-thirds of the Gophers’ opening weekend starting pitchers have missed time this season, and their staff as a whole is still a work in progress.

“We’re a little short on the mound right now,” head coach John Anderson said. “[We] had to use a lot of guys [Saturday] in the 13-inning game. When your starter doesn’t get you deep into the game, that’s what happens. The game starts and ends on the mound.”

Both opening weekend starters Neal Kunik and Dalton Sawyer did not pitch in the series against Northwestern. It was the first start Sawyer missed all season, but Kunik has only taken the mound twice.

With new starters being added to the rotation, the Gophers’ staff has struggled with a 6.38 ERA.

Opponents are hitting .284 against the Gophers, but the pitching staff is also prolonging innings with free bases. The team currently walks a batter almost every other inning.

The walks have prolonged innings in the field for the Gophers, and Anderson said all the extra time on defense can wear out a team.

“You can’t be on defense as long as we were [on Sunday] and expect to have any energy on offense,” Anderson said. “I think we got back on our heels on defense a little bit just because of all the long innings.”

To shorten long innings, the Gophers’ staff, which hasn’t demonstrated great control so far this season, needs better command.

“I think we’ve just got to throw more strikes,” redshirt senior catcher Matt Halloran said. “We’ve got to get ahead of hitters. You get to a 2-1, 1-0, 3-1 count, [and] it’s pretty easy to hit. You can eliminate some pitches, and you know what’s coming.”

So far this season, Meyer hasn’t performed up to his own standards, with a 4.62 ERA — a full two runs higher than his career average of 2.52.

But Meyer’s start last weekend was a positive sign for the Gophers.

“[It] was a better performance than I’ve seen him have all year,” Anderson said of Friday’s start. “Maybe it’s the [time] for him to start [putting] together back-to-back performances because we’re going to need it.”

In addition to Meyer, the Gophers will need several other pitchers to step up as they continue conference play in the Big Ten.

But Halloran said there’s still time for the team to figure things out.

“It’s something we can work on,” Halloran said. “We can’t panic right now. We’re halfway through the season. It’s stuff we can fix, so that’s a good thing.”