Baseball flying south for spring

Sarah Mitchell

Gophers pitcher Brad Pautz is looking forward to skipping town for the next 10 days, in search of real grass and blue skies. Pautz and the rest of the 26th-ranked Minnesota baseball team starts its annual spring trip this weekend, headed for Alabama.
“I think we’re just excited to get outside,” Pautz said. “It’s not fun sitting in a building everyday.”
The Gophers’ (3-1 overall) road tour includes three games at the Coca-Cola Classic in Mobile on Feb. 19-21, a midweek game against Auburn and a three-game stand at the Troy State Classic in Montgomery on Feb. 26-28.
Minnesota’s first opponent is South Alabama tonight before facing UAB on Saturday, and the team will use the trip as a learning experience.
“It’s more internal,” Pautz said. “It’s a chance to see how everyone is playing. We’re limited to our time outside.”
Coming off an upset to Viterbo College, a 7-5 loss on Monday, the coaching staff is still shuffling players around, looking for the strongest lineup for the conference opener. Minnesota’s Big Ten season begins on April 2, a four-game stand at Iowa.
Right now, the weak link seems to be on offense. Last season’s team rewrote seven single-season hitting records, but with the departure of Mark Groebner and Craig Selander, the Gophers lost major power at the plate and might have to focus more on a one-base-at-a-time attack.
Minnesota still has senior Robb Quinlan, however, whose bat is responsible for setting four of those records. The first baseman led the Big Ten in home runs, runs scored, total bases, hits and slugging percentage last season. But keeping him protected in the lineup has caused a problem for Gophers coach John Anderson.
“I’m concerned, really concerned,” Anderson said. “We have to have the right people batting around him or he won’t get any good pitches.”
Anderson is expecting solid pitching from his staff this season, but that might not come around until Big Ten action begins. Three of the team’s starters — juniors Ben Birk, Dan McGrath and Kelly Werner — are dealing all with pre-season sore arms.
Birk, the ace of the pitching staff, is expected to return to the mound by the beginning of March. The southpaw had a masterpiece season last year, recording a 2.65 ERA while walking 11 and surrendering just two home runs in 74.2 innings.
McGrath is expected to make his comeback shortly after Birk. The left-hander worked his way into the starting rotation last season, throwing five complete games last season on his way to a 9-3 record.
“As soon as we get everyone healthy we’ll do fine,” Pautz said. “Our bullpen is deeper this season. I think the season will revolve around how well our pitching staff does.”
While some of the pitching staff might not see any work in Alabama, the rest of the team is planning to figure out just where it stands. Junior Matt Scanlon said the lengthy trip is a good way to measure themselves against southern schools, who already played nearly 15 games before the Gophers opened their season on Sunday.
“It’s going to be a transition going from the Metrodome turf to real grass,” junior Matt Scanlon said. “We just have to play like we practice.”