If the first six weeks of the Gophers’ baseball season looks like an airport-and-hotel-room nightmare to coach John Anderson — and it does — at least it’s a recurring one. Wait, is that an advantage?
“Well, we try to make it one,” Minnesota’s Hall of Fame coach said as he prepared to enter his 33rd season managing the Gophers. “We went through it in 2011, so it’s a recent memory. Though we tried to forget some of it.”
That year, the Gophers were displaced by the Metrodome roof collapse. This time, the entire building will be gone, and with it, any chance of practicing outdoors or playing a home game before March 26. Until then, the Gophers will jet each weekend to Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina, California. Those diamonds will be warmer, but as the Gophers learned three years ago, it’s not as much fun as it sounds.
“We had bus breakdowns, flight cancellations, bad weather,” Anderson recalls of that season, in which the Minnesota nomads, coming off a Big Ten championship year, went 8-8 and endured six washouts before coming home, a grind that spilled over into a disappointing season. “The kids are young, they’re resilient. But it’s not easy.”
Anderson cites the ability to develop some team chemistry during all the flights and bus rides, and just the sheer joy of playing actual games for the first time in months instead of being limited to cooped-up drills indoors, as an advantage. The players will have to be especially disciplined about schoolwork, not to mention warding off fatigue of traveling.
“It’s about task management and planning,” said senior Dan Olinger. “It’s worth it to thaw out a little bit.”
The Gophers, 32-22 last year, aren’t projected by Big Ten coaches to finish in the top six and qualify for the conference tournament, but they are heartened by recent history; Purdue, champion in 2012, hadn’t won the league since 1909, and Indiana last year finished on top for the first time since 1949. If they survive their schedule, Anderson said he believes the Gophers have a team built to surprise in the increasingly competitive Big Ten: some promising young hitters, some finally-healthy veterans — and one of the best pitching staffs he’s ever coached.
“We’re going to have a deep and talented staff,” Anderson said, and perhaps the hardest-throwing collection of arms in Gophers history. Minnesota had the second-best ERA in the Big Ten last year, and the highest strikeout rate, and while two starters graduated, the threesome of Alec Crawford, Jordan Jess and Ben Meyer give the Gophers a formidable rotation of 90-mph-plus throwers.
Crawford had knee surgery last February, “and it made it tough to pitch right away” the senior righthander, who still managed to post a 2.28 ERA in 51 innings as a junior. “I’m stronger now, and I feel a lot more in command out there.”
“Last fall, he took it to another level,’’ Anderson said. ‘‘He’s running it up there at 92, 93 [mph]. His breaking ball is sharper and he’s got a good changeup. I see him as the type of pitcher we’re used to having in the No. 1 slot here.”
The bullpen is stocked with power arms, too, including Eden Prairie alum Lance Thonvold, whose 95-mph fastball makes him a candidate, along with Matt Fiedler, a freshman from St. Paul Academy, to close.
But the Gophers had lots of pitching last year, too, and while it carried them to fourth in the Big Ten and a couple of wins in the conference tournament, they were undone by a season-long hitting drought. Conference champ (and 2014 favorite) Indiana scored nearly twice as many runs as Minnesota, but Anderson said Olinger, a first baseman who has undergone two shoulder surgeries, and shortstop Michael Handel, bothered last year by shoulder and groin injuries, can ignite an offensive resurgence. Throw in a strong freshman class and the Gophers hope to score enough runs to support their pitching.
“Our hitting is really coming around,” Olinger said. “I feel confident, with our pitching staff, that we’re set up to succeed.”