Here’s an obvious but imperative asterisk to the Gophers baseball team: This year’s incarnation is not last year’s.
The 2018 team was historically good. This 2019 one — at least so far — isn’t.
“Last year’s team definitely set a standard for this program going forward, and obviously that’s something we want to live up to,” junior catcher Eli Wilson said. “That being said, this is a new team, new challenges, new guys.
“… We were kind of frustrated that maybe people weren’t viewing us as the same powerhouse team that we were the year before. But I think lately, we’ve moved away from that and realized that it’s less about what other people think of us and more about what we think about ourselves.”
The Gophers are 16-18 heading into a series with Oklahoma (25-13), which includes Friday and Sunday games at Siebert Field and a special game Saturday at Target Field.
Last season, the Gophers sported a 44-15 record plus Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and reached an NCAA super regional before losing to eventual College World Series champion Oregon State. Strong defense, offense, position players and senior leadership all came through, while the pitching surprisingly produced two freshmen All-America selections.
This year, pitching was about all the Gophers could count on, after the team lost six seniors to graduation and two juniors to the pros. Nearly 70% of the team is underclassmen, who have struggled to develop amid some schedule woes this spring.
“This is a new team. A different team. And you’re going to have to manage those expectations,” longtime coach John Anderson said. “… I knew from my experience that there were some factors lining up here that potentially were going to impact the team. But try to coach through it. Try to warn people. Try to get them to be realistic.”
Some of those factors were known but unavoidable, like playing the first 21 games of the year on the road against a tough catalog of opponents. Last season, the Gophers played a couple weeks indoors at U.S. Bank Stadium, and Anderson credited that time as a pivotal coming-together point. But the men’s basketball Final Four and other events this year meant no baseball games at the Vikings stadium, which made for a lot of two-practice weeks, with departures on Thursdays and 2 a.m. arrivals back on campus Monday. It also prevented many midweek games during which younger players usually see more time and develop.
Some factors were unforeseen. While the Gophers did have a nucleus of key players returning, some haven’t quite lived up to their 2018 form yet.
One of those freshman All-America pitchers, Patrick Fredrickson, was 9-0 last season but is just 1-3 this year with a 5.74 ERA. Outfielder Eduardo Estrada Jr. is a senior leader Anderson hoped could spark the offense, but injuries have limited him to 47 at-bats.
Others have tried to compensate. The other freshman All-America, Max Meyer, moved from closer to starter and leads the team with a 1.97 ERA as well as with a .292 batting average.
Redshirt junior Jordan Kozicky moved from outfield to shortstop this season and has a team-high 33 RBI.
And while Anderson said he could sense his team “trying to be last year’s team” early in the season, he noticed players settling in to focus on daily improvement about a month ago.
Is it too little too late for this season, though?
“We for sure can get back to the top of the Big Ten,” Meyer said. “It’s just, there’s something that’s just not clicking, and I feel like we’re all almost there. I feel like our pitchers are starting to figure it out a lot. Our hitters are making a lot more contact.
“… Just one more piece that we don’t know yet.”