CORVALLIS, Ore. – His baseball team had just lost to Oregon State late Saturday night.
The loss was a gut punch for the Gophers, who led by a run entering the eighth inning. The Beavers had tied the game, then scored three in the top of the ninth to reach the College World Series.
Naturally, Gophers coach John Anderson was thinking about the senior class. This season they helped the Gophers earn Big Ten championships in both the regular season and conference tournament, an NCAA regional win and the program’s first berth in a super regional.
And he was waxing nostalgic.
Anderson recalled the meeting he and his then-freshman class had in 2015 — one of only two losing seasons in his 37 seasons as coach — after a difficult series against Northwestern. Things had to change, he told them. The culture has to change.
Of course, it did.
So, Saturday night, sitting in the interview room next to senior Micah Coffey — one of those freshmen — all Anderson could do was say thanks.
“If you study their résumé, what these seniors have done, and how they changed the culture,’’ he said, “I give them the credit. They’ve set the standard. I hope the younger players have paid attention.’’
The two-game sweep at the hands of the Beavers was difficult to take. But the OSU lineup is stacked — three of the first six batters are first-round MLB draft picks. Another player, catcher Adley Rutschman — whose two-out single on a 1-2 pitch with the bases loaded broke a 3-3 tie in the top of the ninth inning Saturday — will likely follow suit next year.
Friday’s winning pitcher, Luke Heimlich, was, Anderson said, perhaps the best lefthander he’s seen in his coaching career. The depth of the Beavers lineup and pitching staff had Anderson predicting big things for the team at the CWS in Omaha.
But back to the Gophers, coming off their best season in decades. What’s next?
Those seniors who did so much — Coffey, Alex Boxwell, Luke Pettersen, Toby Hanson and pitchers Jackson Rose and Fred Manke — are leaving. Along with, almost certainly, shortstop Terrin Vavra, whose wonderful season made him a third-round draft selection of the Colorado Rockies.
This is a lot to replace. So strong up the middle all season, the Gophers have to find new starters for Vavra at shortstop, Pettersen at second base and Boxwell in center field.
“We’re going to have to get our middle infield situation squared away,’’ Anderson said. “But we have some options.’’
Left fielder Ben Mezzenga is back, as are starters at catcher (Eli Wilson), right field (Jordan Kozicky) and first base (Cole McDevitt). Those three accounted for five of the Gophers’ eight hits Saturday and two of three RBI.
Anderson likes the recruiting class coming in. He sees potential in his freshman class, ruing the weather that knocked out so many games early this season, slowing their development. Kozicky could end up in the infield. Jack Wassel, a backup this season, also could be counted on in the infield.
But, while all that is going on, the one area of certain strength is pitching.
Fans saw it Saturday, when the two Gophers freshman All-America pitchers performed so well. Patrick Fredrickson allowed only two runs over five innings as the starter. Max Meyer came on and was very good for three innings until running into trouble in the ninth in what was the longest outing (81 pitches) of his young career.
Both will be back, and most likely so will Reggie Meyer, Friday’s starter. Anderson is confident freshman pitchers Sam Thoresen and Ryan Duffy will take steps.
“The pitching staff we have coming back, we have some talent,’’ Anderson said. “The cupboard is not going to be bare. I really think we’ll be able to pitch next year.’’
And that’s a good place to start. Anderson is confident players will build on the example his seniors set. And he likes his underclassmen.
Of course, there is another loss to the program that will be difficult to replace. Assistant head coach Rob Fornasiere, with the program for 33 years, is retiring.
“We’ve been together for 33 of my 37 years,’’ Anderson said. “I’m glad he got the ride to the finish line that he did, because he truly deserved it. I can’t think of a more special way for him to finish his coaching career than with this group and the season they put together. It’s going to be different without him. Really different. He’ll be greatly missed in this program.’’