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Gophers baseball team hoping for better start, better season

Last season started poorly for the Gophers baseball team and ended the same way.

Minnesota opened with Houston and Texas, two talented teams, in the Lone Star State and was 0-7 before getting a win. The Gophers ultimately finished 9-15 in Big Ten play, which put them in ninth place and left them out of the Big Ten tournament at Target Field.

The top eight advance, the Gophers, who had an 0-9 stretch starting in late April, were one conference win shy. Ouch.

The Gophers' overall record was 21-30, which meant only the second losing season for coach John Anderson in 34 years.

His 35th season starts Friday with a 6 p.m. game against Utah, 16-36-1 last season, at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Ariz. The stadium is the spring training home of the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers. ... Anderson has 1,172 career wins.

The Gophers return 23 players, including 13 pitchers, and have five seniors.

The team had a 5.40 ERA last season, which has to improve, and gave up more than 200 walks.

Senior lefthander Dalton Sawyer and junior righthander Matt Fiedler give Anderson two possible aces.

Sawyer was 4-3 in eight starts and struck out 38 in 49.2 innings.

Fielder, also a regular outfielder, was 2-0 with one save and had a team-best 2.86 ERA in 15 appearances. He held batters to a .173 average. He also had a team-high 31 RBI and hit four homers.

Relievers Jordan Jess and Ty McDevitt, both seniors, are veterans in the bullpen.

The other two seniors are center fielder Dan Motl, a talented leadoff hitter, and second baseman Connor Schaefbauer. Motl hit .291 with 30 runs, 19 RBI and 13 steals last season. He also had a 17-game hitting streak.

Schaefbauer hit only .260 but led the team with 11 doubles and scored 24 runs. He also was second on the team with 17 multihit games.

One of the most promising new players is Eddie Estrada, a 6-0, 220-pound freshman infielder from Litchfield, Minn. He led the Northwoods League in hitting last summer, batting .443, and was tabbed the state's top college prospect from the Class of 2015.

The Big Ten coaches picked the conference's top teams in a preseason poll, but the list included only the top six. The Gophers were not among them.

Based on Anderson's long resume, the Gophers should have a bounce-back season. And slowly the facilities he can offer his players are improving.

There is a new state-of-the-art locker room and, by midseson, a new batting facility next to Siebert Field will be ready, too.

One quirk about this team is its left-handedness. Seventeen players bat left-handed. That's more than any other team from a Power Five conference has.

REST OF WEEKEND

After playing Utah on Friday, the Gophers play three more games this weekend in Surprise, Ariz. The schedule:

* Utah Valley, 11 a.m. Sat. ... 19-35 last season

* Utah, 10 a.m. Sun. ... same opponent as in opener

* Oregon State, 2 p.m. Sun. ... Beavers were 39-18-1 last season and made the NCAA tournament. They were 19-10-1 in the Pac-12 to finish second. This season they are the conference favorites in a coaches' preseason poll and a consensus top 10 team in national polls, being ranked as high as No. 5 by Baseball America.

Schedule could doom Gophers' NCAA women's tournament hopes

A year ago, seven Big Ten teams, including the Gophers, made the NCAA women's basketball tournament field.

And the seven were pretty well known before the conference tournament. Why? They all had low RPIs.

Maryland was No. 6 and won the Big Ten tournament for an automatic spot.

Getting at-large berths were these six: Iowa (No. 9), Ohio St. (No. 26), Northwestern (No. 37), Rutgers (No. 38), Nebraska (No. 41) and the Gophers (No. 46).

Minnesota beat Purdue 82-78 in the Big Ten tournament second round, but lost to Ohio State 83-71 in the quarterfinals. ... Got an eighth seed, then fell to ninth-seeded DePaul 79-72 in a first round NCAA tournament game in South Bend, Ind.

The Gophers finished 23-10, 11-7 in regular-season conference play.

This season Minnesota is 18-7, 10-4 in the Big Ten, alone in third place, but the Gophers need a few upsets to make the NCAAs again. Why? Their RPI is a dismal No. 76 because of a weak nonconference schedule and a weak conference schedule so far. They haven't played the top two teams in the Big Ten Conference yet nor Michigan State tied for fourth and the team with the third-best RPI in the conference. Those are the last three games before the Big Ten tournament.

A rugged stretch, especially with three of the games on the road. The Gophers are 7-1 at home against conference teams, 3-3 on the road.

Only five conference teams look like they have at-large spots locked up: Ohio State (No. 5), Maryland (No. 6), Michigan State (No. 32), Rutgers (No. 41) and probably Indiana (No. 47). ... Even Iowa (No. 57) and Nebraska (No. 69) are closer to the bubble than the Gophers.

The opportunity is there for Minnesota to drop its RPI quite a bit in its last four games, though, all tough: at Indiana, at Michigan State, Ohio State at home, and at Maryland.

They have to get around No. 50 in RPI to be reasonably certain of getting in with one of the 32 at-large berths. Rest of the field is filled with 32 automatic qualifiers who win conference tournaments.

Here's a look at what happened a year ago:

* The top 43 teams in the RPI all made the NCAA tournament, grabbing either automatic or at-large spots.

* Only two teams with RPIs in the 40s were left out: Duquesne (No. 44) and Arkansas State (No. 45). So if the Gophers can get into the 40s in RPI, their chances are good.

* Six teams with RPIs in the 50s were left out: St. Mary's (No. 52), UCLA (No. 53), Michigan (No. 54), Fresno State (No. 57) and Penn (No. 58).

 * The team with highest RPI to make it was LSU (No. 60), just ahead of Iowa State (No. 59). ... Also qualifying were Ohio (No. 50, automatic), Tulane (No. 51), BYU (No. 55, automatic), Miami (Fla.) (No. 56).

Yes, the selection committee looks at other things besides RPI, record vs. other NCAA tournament teams, how team finishes, etc., but RPI is pretty important. And the Gophers at No. 76 have to improve their RPI a lot or win the Big Ten tournament for the automatic bid if they are going to go dancing.