Minnesota’s baseball team heads into this weekend’s four-game series against Illinois with its sights set on the big picture in the Big Ten.
The Gophers (15-18, 7-4 Big Ten) are two games behind first-place Ohio State in the win column, and the Buckeyes square off with second-place Indiana this weekend. If those two teams split the series, Minnesota could find itself perched on top of the conference.
“A sweep this weekend would be huge,” center fielder Sam Steidl said. “Not only just to get over .500, but it would probably put us at the top of the Big Ten standings.
“It’d be a great confidence booster going into the weeks ahead.”
The Gophers dropped their Wednesday game to Northern Iowa 13-6, and for the second time this season committed as many errors (six) as runs scored against the Panthers.
Coach John Anderson was disappointed in his defense, but also said Northern Iowa has a rocky field, making “every ball an adventure.”
The defense must deal with a solid Illini club that is 19-9 on the year, but only 5-7 in the conference having already faced second-place Indiana and third-place Purdue this season.
“The thing about our team is that there is no one guy that just sticks out,” Illinois coach Richard Jones said. “It seems like on any given day someone makes a contribution either on the mound or at the plate or makes a key defensive play. So I don’t think we’re a team that people can just sit on one or two different players.”
The Illini boast the reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Week in Andy Dickinson, who pitched a shutout against Michigan last weekend. Minnesota will likely see Dickinson on Friday.
The good news for the Gophers is they have enjoyed success against staff aces so far this season, picking up wins against Michigan’s Bobby Korecky and Penn State’s Mike Watson.
“The big challenge will be in the first game, trying to score off of Dickinson,” Anderson said. “We’re going to have to pitch and play defense like we did against Korecky and Watson.”
At the plate, Minnesota must deal with a balanced Illini lineup. Freshman Drew Davidson leads the team with a .409 batting average, and four others are batting over .330.
But pitcher Josh Krogman is not concerned with the Michigan hitters. He thinks the pitching staff is throwing as well as they have all season.
Right now the team’s biggest concern is with staying consistent, especially on defense.
Gagner out two weeks
Sophomore pitcher Jay Gagner will likely miss the next two weeks while rehabilitating his sore left elbow. Gagner last pitched April 7 against Michigan and didn’t make the trip to Penn State last weekend.
Gagner played catch Thursday for the first time since his last outing after getting medical clearance.
“I saw a doctor yesterday and he said it’s a lot better than he thought it was going to be,” Gagner said. “I have to keep doing my rehab and try to build up to getting the long toss two weeks from (Thursday).”
Gagner said he hopes to return to action in time for the Purdue series the first weekend of May. But Anderson said depending on the healing process, Gagner could see action in a limited relief role next weekend versus Indiana.
Home sweet home
This weekend’s series with Illinois will be the first games played at Siebert Field this season.
Minnesota is 33 games into the season, and has only practiced on its home field twice. The coaches and players alike are excited to finally play at home under a blue sky instead of a white canopy.
“It just adds so much more atmosphere,” Steidl said. “The Metrodome is kind of bland and pretty plain. It’s so big that it doesn’t look like anyone’s there. The field is looking great now, so this series should be fun.”
Grab some bench
The Gophers are renting bleachers to put on the third base side of Seibert Field, increasing seating capacity by three or four hundred people. Currently Seibert Field only has a capacity between seven and eight hundred people because the bleachers on the baselines were removed during the off season.
One more game
Minnesota added a contest with Bethel to its schedule on Thursday. The Gophers host the game Tuesday, April 23rd at 6 p.m.
Anthony Maggio covers baseball and welcomes comments at [email protected]