Nomads ready for nice, new digs

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2011 - 11:33 PM

Forced by the Dome's roof collapse to play entirely on the road so far, the Gophers are excited for Target Field.

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Gophers baseball coach John Anderson

Photo: Jennifer Simonson, Star Tribune file

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Gophers quarterbacks were practicing shotgun snaps along one wall Thursday, and the offensive linemen were doing some post-workout fundamentals near midfield. As football practice wound down, the Gophers baseball team filed past, dropped their equipment in the far end zone and began stretching.

It might look like a vacant corner of someone else's practice field, but to the Gophers, it's home.

"We try to tell ourselves, this was once pretty normal," John Anderson, head baseball coach for three decades, said. "In early Minnesota [college] baseball history, it was pretty typical to have to stay inside, find a place to practice, and just make do."

If the Gophers have a rallying cry, that might be it. They're the defending Big Ten champions, for two consecutive years have made it to an NCAA regional championship game, and are the preseason favorites to make the postseason again. But all that has been forgotten this spring -- the Gophers are too busy just making do.

The collapsed roof at the Metrodome forced them to spend the entire preseason away from home, and bad weather has followed them around. Purdue comes into Friday's game with a 16-8 record, while the Gophers -- who have yet to play a game in the Central time zone -- are only 8-8, a good illustration of how much time they have spent sitting around, wishing they could play baseball.

They don't dwell on it, however.

"If anything good has come out of this spring, it's in how the players have embraced the challenges we've faced. They haven't complained even one second," Anderson said. "I've learned a lot about our guys, and the strong leadership base we have."

At least they have a nice home for conference play, if Minnesota's weather cooperates. The Twins offered Target Field for the Gophers' 12 home games, which by amazing coincidence line up perfectly with the major league team's road trips. The Gophers and Boilermakers will play a single game at 1 p.m. Friday, then a doubleheader Saturday beginning at 1 p.m. -- a series the Twins consider good practice for their stadium crew. Concessions areas, including beer stands, will be open.

The Gophers played one game at Target Field last April, so "I don't think the gawk factor will affect us much," Anderson said. "It's just going to be nice to be able to play outside a batting cage for a change."

Pitching depth was supposed to be a Minnesota strength, but it hasn't mattered so far, given that the Gophers have played only twice since March 17. Instead of spreading around innings, Anderson is concerned about stretching out his pitching staff. None of his starters has thrown even 30 innings yet, and closer Scott Matyas, who has four saves, is the only reliever with more than six appearances. No. 1 starter T.J. Oakes, a sophomore righthander, has pitched relatively well, posting a 3.54 ERA despite a 1-3 record.

"He's done a good job of keeping us in some low-scoring games," Anderson said.

The Gophers have been without cleanup hitter Nick O'Shea, who leads the team with seven extra-base hits and 10 RBI, for four games while he recovers from a strained oblique. But second baseman A.J. Pettersen and outfielder Trip Schultz have stepped forward to keep the offense rolling. Schultz's four RBI Sunday at Cal Poly helped the Gophers close their preconference schedule with a victory.

Can they salvage a nomadic season and defend their Big Ten title? Anderson is optimistic, pointing out that the Gophers were 10-17 at one point last year before finishing strong.

"It's hard for me even to judge the talent with the start we've had," he said. "But I like to think that we're about to get this headed in the right direction."

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