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Gopher baseball’s pitching staff looking to turn a corner

Minnesota’s staff put the pieces together on Wednesday against South Dakota State in an 11-1 win.
Image by David Stager
Gophers pitcher Sam Kennedy struck out a career-high seven batters in a career-high three scoreless innings on Wednesday.

A season ago, Gophers baseball sat No. 11 in the conference with a 5.95 ERA. This season, the pitching staff, made up of a mixture of youth and experience, improved their ERA to 4.97 and are heading into the weekend hunting for a postseason berth.

In the Gophers’ most recent game, South Dakota State traveled to Siebert Field on Wednesday night for a non-conference matchup.

Junior pitcher Tucker Novotny got the start against the Jackrabbits. Gophers head coach John Anderson said moving Novotny, Minnesota’s typical starter on Fridays, to a midweek game was a way to mix things up for the left-handed pitcher.

“We’re trying to move him out of the weekend and back to midweek to see if we can get him in a place where he can have some success and confidence,” Anderson said. “To try and find that fastball command that I think has served him so well in the past that he hasn’t had this year from a consistent standpoint.”

Anderson added that Novotny’s command of his fastball is “critical” to his success. Against the Jackrabbits, Novotny responded by tossing three scoreless innings, including six strikeouts and stranding five runners on base.

Already holding a three-run lead in the fourth inning, the Gophers brought in redshirt freshman Sam Kennedy. The St. Paul, Minnesota native set two career-highs with three scoreless innings and seven strikeouts.

Kennedy missed the entirety of last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Redshirt junior starting pitcher Will Semb shared his experience with rehab as the pair both missed last season.

“Everybody’s rehab goes a little differently, just with the different games he’s throwing and how long [he] gets off, everything like that,” Semb said. “He’s just getting back and just week by week taking it that way.”

Novotny, Kennedy and Semb combined for 16 strikeouts in the Gophers’ seven-inning run-rule win over the Jackrabbits.

Kyle Remington, Tyler Hemmesch and Will Whalen all carved out sizable roles in the bullpen in their first seasons of college baseball. All three freshman relievers pitched more than 10 innings in the year.

Anderson said the three have bright futures.

“For them to be able to contribute the way they have as freshmen speaks to their talent level,” Anderson said. “It also speaks to the future they have in this game at the Division I level. I think all three are going to be outstanding pitchers.”

Anderson said Remington and Hemmesch have been more consistent than what he has seen “historically.”

Junior reliever Seth Clausen said while the Gophers have improved overall this season from the last there is still room for growth.

“We talk all the time about little things we need to get better at, and that’s two-strike execution,” Clausen said. “Being able to strike out more guys and not letting guys back into counts when you got them on the ropes.”

Minnesota leads the Big Ten, allowing the least amount of extra-base hits (70), first in both home runs (18) and doubles (43) allowed.

Comparatively, the 2018 Minnesota team that won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles was second in the conference in extra-base hits allowed. In addition, the same team posted a 3.18 ERA, placing second in the conference.

One of the main areas needing improvement for this year’s team, according to Anderson, is limiting the other team’s free bases.

“We still haven’t reached a level of consistency I think we are capable of in all three phases: offense, defense and pitching,” Anderson said. “We have to eliminate the freebies that seem to come in clusters and impact the outcome of the game.”

Anderson said the staff needs “more consistent starting pitching” and added that depending on how things shake out this weekend, Remington could make his first career start.

The Gophers lead the Big Ten with 51 wild pitches and are last in the conference in fielding percentage at 96.3%, good for 225th in the nation.

Minnesota is 3-6 in Big Ten play and faces an important three-game series against Indiana at home starting on April 19. Only eight teams make the Big Ten Tournament, and the Gophers are ranked No. 11 in the conference, facing the 20-17 Hoosiers, who are No. 6 in the Big Ten (5-4).

Anderson said the lack of home games hindered the pitchers’ development early, but he sees them progressively improving.

“We’re trending in the right direction, and hopefully, we can close that gap a little bit,” Anderson said.

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