Jack Wassel leads Gophers baseball through slow start in 2021

Redshirt senior Jack Wassel realizes baseball always presents new challenges amid what could be his final season with the Gophers.

Gophers infielder Jack Wassel watches the ball after a hit at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. The Gophers fell to Duke 3-7.

Jasmin Kemp

Gophers infielder Jack Wassel watches the ball after a hit at U.S. Bank Stadium on Saturday, Feb. 29, 2020. The Gophers fell to Duke 3-7.

Tony Liebert

Gophers third baseman Jack Wassel was in the middle of his best season as a college baseball player, slashing a career-high .364 at the plate with 24 hits and 16 RBIs in only 18 games in his redshirt junior season. Unfortunately, everything suddenly came to an abrupt halt as COVID-19 began to impact everyone’s lives.

Wassel was later named the Big Ten’s Breakout Player and Breakout Hitter for the 2020 season by D1Baseball. His standout campaign created a belief among many that he would have a chance to be selected in the 2020 MLB draft between rounds 15-20.

Unfortunately, the bad news struck again, as the MLB then decided to reduce its draft by 80% — going from the normal 40 rounds to only five. The league also decided that $20,000 would be the maximum signing bonus for draft-eligible players not selected. The league’s decision reduced Wassel’s chances of getting drafted and played a large role in his decision to return for a fifth season donning the Maroon and Gold.

“Emotionally, it was a lot to handle. With COVID happening, I was kinda taken aback a little bit and had to reevaluate where I was as a player and where I was in my career,” Wassel said. “Going into the summer and the offseason, I had to make a decision, and I thought it was best for me to come back, and I am glad I made that decision.”

The Geneva, Illinois, native came back to Dinkytown with serious expectations. The Bobby Bragan Youth Foundation named Wassel to the 2021 Bobby Bragan Collegiate Slugger Award Watch List, an award given to the top college hitter in the nation based on performance at the plate, academics and personal integrity.

He was also tabbed as the sixth-best third baseman in the country according to D1Baseball, making him the highest-ranked player at his position within the Big Ten Conference. The accolades meant a lot to Wassel, but he has stayed motivated to keep getting better.

“With baseball, you can never be done with getting better at it. There are always new challenges,” Wassel said. “Focusing on that and not letting external factors motivate me, and more internal factors drive me to improve and become a better player every day.”

To begin his redshirt senior season in 2021, Wassel has been one of the most productive hitters on the Gophers roster. He has slashed .274 with two home runs and nine RBIs while starting in 21 of 22 games this season from the hot corner. As one of the team’s most consistent options at the plate, he is still looking for any area in which he can improve his game.

“It is just the mental side throughout my whole career: being able to slow the game down and understand how pitchers are trying to attack me and understanding where I should be positioned within the field,” Wassel said. “That’s been the most challenging part for me, getting to a mental headspace where I can reach my potential.”

Outside of Wassel and junior standout Zack Raabe, the Gophers have struggled to find a consistent rhythm, dropping nine of their last 10 games, and are 4-20 overall. Most recently, Iowa and Michigan swept Minnesota in a pair of three-game series. At the end of the day, baseball is a team game, and Wassel knows the Gophers will need everyone to consistently find themselves in the win column.

“When things aren’t going well, it’s really hard to kind of step back and realize what I can be doing to help the team,” he said. “You kind of don’t want to separate your success or your failure from how the team’s doing.”

Wassel knows the Gophers will need all hands on deck to get back on track as a team. The Gophers will look to get back in the win column when they take on Indiana this weekend.

“As a team, we need to find a way to trust the guy next to us, that he is going to do his best to succeed,” Wassel said. “If he is going to do that, I can trust that I will be able to do that.”