Gophers baseball set to begin season like no other

Minnesota’s longtime head coach John Anderson is about to begin his 40th season leading the Gophers baseball team.

A gopher baseball player sits on the bench on April 14, 2019 at Siebert Field.

Jasmin Kemp

A gopher baseball player sits on the bench on April 14, 2019 at Siebert Field.

Tony Liebert

After playing only 18 games in the 2020 season, the Gophers baseball team is about to return to the diamond Friday in a weekend series at U.S. Bank Stadium. Minnesota will play four games from March 5 to 7, with two against Rutgers and two against Indiana.

“There is no training manual for what we’ve gone through in the last year, that’s for sure,” Gophers’ head coach John Anderson said. “I think what I have learned throughout my 40 years — better figure out how to be adaptable and flexible.”

Offensive firepower

In its shortened 2020 campaign Minnesota relatively struggled, earning an 8-10 record in a daunting nonconference schedule. However, there is a reason for optimism heading into the 2021 season, as the Gophers return starters at every position except shortstop.

In total, the team will return 31 players, including six who hit .300 or better last season. Anderson will lean on preseason second-team All-American second baseman, Zack Raabe, and third baseman Jack Wassel for offensive firepower, both of whom rank as top-six infielders in the country according to D1Baseball.

“We’re actually just really excited to play again. Getting our season stripped away like that was heartbreaking,” Raabe said. “We’re just looking forward to the first game of the year.”

In 2020, it wasn’t just Raabe and Wassel, as Minnesota led the Big Ten Conference in both hits and total bases. The team also has the most .300 hitters in the conference since 2016; 18 Gophers have hit .300 or better in that period.

Heading into this season, Ronald Sweeny leads the rest of the infield and will likely be the team’s prominent first baseman. Drew Stahl, Noah Berghammer and Zack Elliott are expected to all compete for time at shortstop. Junior Chase Stanke will be the catcher after playing in all 18 games, including 15 starts, a year ago.

In the outfield, senior Easton Bertrand and junior Andrew Wilhite are likely to be everyday members of the starting lineup, while Otto Grimm, Gabe Knowles and Drew Hmielewski will likely all compete for the other spot.

Pitching staff

Minnesota will face overcoming the loss of its number one ace. Max Meyer, a 2020 All-American, was selected third overall in the 2020 MLB draft by the Miami Marlins. Junior J.P. Massey will attempt to replace Meyer as the Gophers’ number one pitcher. Last season the 6-foot-5 right-handed pitcher from Chicago finished with a 4.66 ERA and 24 strikeouts over 19 1-3 innings. He might also be right behind Meyer to the big leagues, ranking as the No. 71 college prospect, according to D1Baseball.

“We got a lot of experienced guys coming back this year that we more than likely wouldn’t have had if it was a normal season,” Massey said. “We also got some young talent. We have some young arms that are primed to step up this year and take on a big role.”

Sophomore Trent Schoeberl will compete to be the staff’s number two option. He finished last season with a 2-0 record and a 2.75 ERA over 19 2-3 innings pitched.

The Gophers will also get back former Utah transfer Jack Liffrig after recovering from Tommy John Surgery, while the rest of the starting rotation will be rounded out by 2018 Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Patrick Fredrickson and redshirt junior Drake Davis. Utility player Sam Ireland is expected to appear on the mound as well as at the plate as a hitter.

As for the bullpen, Bubba Horton was arguably the most productive Gophers reliever last season. He pitched 16 innings, earned a 4.50 ERA and recorded a team-high two saves. Left-handers Ryan Duffy, Danny Kapala and Will Anderson will be much involved, while right-handers Gus Radel and Bennett Theisen will have prominent roles as well.

Redshirt senior Nolan Burchill will likely act as the team’s swingman, contributing as both a starter and high-leverage bullpen option. Joshua Culliver continues to recover from Tommy John surgery but is expected to be available at some point in this season.

As a whole, the Gophers’ experience and developing talent will give them every chance to compete for a regional postseason spot this year. They will be a team known for its offensive firepower, and if the pitching comes along, the sky’s the limit in the 2021 season.