Minnesota baseball coach John Anderson had grown accustomed to the same core of players inhabiting the early-middle part of his lineup for the last few years.
When much of that core – including Ben Pattee, two-time Big Ten player of the year Luke Appert, two-time first team All-Big Ten selection Scott Welch and 2003 second team All-Big Ten selection David Roach – graduated after last season, Anderson was left with holes he’s still trying to fill 15 games into this season.
The Gophers coach has struggled to find mainstays in the two and four spots in the lineup, and much of that has to do with inconsistency and rough starts from the team’s more experienced players.
This weekend, Minnesota (7-8) travels to Des Moines, Iowa, to battle Northern Illinois on Friday at 2 p.m., Iowa on Saturday at 2 p.m. and Northern Colorado on Sunday at 11 a.m.
As they leave, the Gophers’ only spot that has been secured early in the lineup is the third spot, where redshirt freshman Mike Mee has resided since the third game of the season, and is hitting .382.
Senior center fielder Sam Steidl had solidified himself as the leadoff hitter, but struggles at the No. 2 spot have forced Anderson to try Steidl there and plug in someone else at leadoff.
The rest of the lineup has been shuffled all season as finding the best combinations has been nothing short of a task.
But the players are dealing with it.
“In the end, you want to come to the park knowing what to expect,” sophomore first baseman Andy Hunter said. “But if you walk in the box hitting first or hitting ninth, hitting fifth, coming to pinch hit, you’ve got one responsibility – to see it and hit it.”
At the same time, Mee said, having a home in the lineup has its definite advantages.
“It’s easier to expect what pitches you’re going to get,” Mee said. “Pitchers will throw different pitches in different situations to different guys in the order. I can learn counts a little better by solidifying a spot.”
As for the pair of spots surrounding Mee’s place in the order, they are still a work in progress with at least four players getting chances in each spot so far.
Anderson had expected switch-hitting left fielder Tony Leseman to fill the vacancy at the two-spot left by Pattee. But Anderson said Leseman’s .234 average hasn’t lived up to the type of hitting ability he showed in fall and winter practices.
The coach also stressed the importance of the No. 2 spot, saying it is vital because, along with the leadoff hitter, it “sets the table” for the heart of the lineup.
With players rotating in and out of it every few days, Anderson finally plugged a more-consistent Steidl into the role. But in moving Steidl back a place, he had to fill the leadoff role with third baseman David Hrncirik, who Anderson said is off to a slow start.
Hunter and catcher Jake Elder have spent most of the season in either the fourth or fifth spots. Despite the prime spot in the lineup, Elder has struggled to just two RBIs in 15 games, and Anderson said Hunter has not swung the bat as well as he did last year.
Senior catcher/designated hitter Gary Dick had two home runs in his first three starts, but he is just now returning from an injury suffered against Minnesota State-Mankato on March 3.
When a team’s older players can’t fill the vacancies left by previous core players, Anderson said even more pressure is put on young players like Mee and fellow freshman Sean Kommerstad, who has started 11 games this season hitting in the bottom of the lineup.
“I think the older guys have got to start playing better for us on offense, because they have more experience,” Anderson said. “When Tony’s not swinging like he can, and Jake and Andy (too), all of a sudden you’re even younger.”
Bumps and bruises
Anderson said Leseman and Dick have been practicing and should return this weekend.
Shortstop Matt Fornasiere has shoulder tendonitis and will be limited in his play after already missing the final two games of last week’s road trip in California. Jared Sanders will continue to substitute at short.