Ireland shows signs of improvement in down season for Gophers baseball

The two-way sophomore has been the Gophers’ pitching ace and also brings the ability to hit at the plate to a team that has been struggling immensely.

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.

AJ Condon

Gophers’ baseball is in the midst of a 13-game losing streak that has dropped the team’s record to 4-26, and the team was swept in the past four series. The struggles have come from both sides during this stretch, but sophomore Sam Ireland has been a bright spot for Minnesota.

Following the loss of the Gophers’ ace Max Meyer, an opportunity presented itself for someone to step up. Ireland has done just that in his first season as a starting pitcher. Ireland, a two-way player, has been big for Minnesota on the mound as well as at the plate.

“Sam’s talented; he can help us in both places. I think you can see the potential there,” Gophers head coach John Anderson said. “[I have] been impressed with Sam’s development. During the pandemic he really worked hard in the weight room.”

Though his 0-3 record doesn’t show it, Ireland has been the Gophers’ ace up until this point. He continuously puts the team in a winning position and has become the series opening pitcher. Ireland has started all seven games he’s pitched and holds the best ERA on the team, with a 4.10, and he has the second best WHIP, with a 1.37.

Ireland has been struggling recently at the plate and also hasn’t been getting as many opportunities. His average has dropped to .212, but that doesn’t take away from the threat he poses to opposing teams.

Looking at the box scores and stats won’t tell you the full story about the first-year starter. Throughout the season he’s continued to improve as a player, and he has become more confident on the mound. In just his second start, Ireland went 7.1 innings while giving up just one run.

“It helps my confidence a lot,” Ireland said on his best start of the season. “After the four and a third against Indiana, I was a little shaken up. But after Illinois, having that confident boost, knowing that I have the stuff, that I have everything I need and all the tools I need to get that far into games and give us a chance to win.”

On the mound, it hasn’t been an easy year for Ireland, and the defense doesn’t always help him out. The Gophers have committed the fifth most errors in the Big Ten. Ireland being on the mound has led to six unearned runs.

“Sam’s learning how to manage some of the adversity that comes up. If somebody doesn’t make a play or he walks a guy, he’s got to figure out a way to make the next pitch and get the next out,” Anderson said.

It sometimes can be a struggle for Ireland having days when he’s only pitching, only hitting or even doing both. It’s not so common to have a player who’s able to throw six or seven innings on the mound and also hit cleanup.

“It’s tough to balance at times. I think finding ways to get all of your practice in in a short amount of time that we have, I think that’s the most difficult part,” Ireland said. “Throwing the first game of the weekend and then having to let my arm recover the next day and possibly playing in the field the day after.”

It’s been an up-and-down year for Ireland, but he’s continued to show improvement in his game. Anderson has been impressed with many facets of Ireland’s skill set and continues to show trust in the righty.

Though the season isn’t going exactly as planned, there is still plenty of time for Ireland to work out the kinks of being a first-year starter and build confidence heading into next season. Anderson said he is confident Ireland will continue to work through adversity.

“He’s going to be an outstanding pitcher in this league, and he’s already made a big leap for me, and I think you’ll see him continue to improve as the season goes on,” Anderson said.