Laughter erupted from the dugout as the Gophers pitching staff hacked its way through batting practice Tuesday at Siebert Field. The senior-week tradition offered a lighthearted moment for a team that is one bad game away from watching next week’s Big Ten tournament at Target Field as fans.
The Gophers must sweep their final conference series this weekend against Michigan State to have any chance of claiming the final spot in the eight-team Big Ten tournament and playing the role of host.
“There is still an opportunity here. We’re probably alive, but on life-support to some degree,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “But that’s OK. I can remember many teams in many years where it came down to the last weekend, and we had to do pretty much the impossible, and it happened.”
The three-game series against the Spartans starts Thursday at Siebert Field, and even if the ninth-place Gophers sweep they’ll need help. Either eighth-place Nebraska or seventh-place Indiana also must go winless in its final three games, against Illinois and Ohio State, respectively. That’s possible, considering the Illini and Buckeyes are two of the top three Big Ten teams.
Anderson and his players were hopeful their long homestand late in the season could pull them out of the hole they dug with inconsistent pitching and quiet bats. The Gophers (19-29, 7-14 Big Ten) managed only a 10-8 record at home, however, and they have lost six of their past seven at Siebert. Michigan State (32-19, 13-8) has been swept only once this season.
“You never know, this weekend could be the weekend where we put [pitching and hitting] together, and put together three solid ballgames and the other [conference] teams could do their job and we could slip into the tournament,” Gophers junior center fielder Dan Motl said. “It’s not a whole lot of pressure. It’s just about having a whole lot of fun out here in front of our fans.”
Motl, one of the team’s top hitters and position players, returned to the Gophers lineup last weekend following a three-week absence after being hit in the face with a fastball. Anderson is hopeful that Motl can find his rhythm again this weekend and help guide the Gophers into the postseason.
“I’ve seen enough — there’s enough of a sample here,” that showcases a good team, Anderson said. “It just feels like any time we get on a little bit of a roll, something [negative] happens.”