Heading into last year’s Big Ten baseball tournament, the Gophers had very little to worry about. As the No. 1 seed for the tournament and ranked No. 12 in the nation, the Gophers were a lock for the 64-team NCAA field.
Going into this year’s conference tournament, which begins Wednesday in Omaha, Gophers coach John Anderson has multiple concerns — the least being that the Gophers (26-25) need to hoist the championship trophy to make the NCAA tournament.
“A few weeks ago, we thought our starting pitching was going to be deep [for the tournament],” Anderson said.
Patrick Fredrickson, who was 9-0 with a 1.86 ERA last year as a freshman, had returned to his spot in the Gophers starting rotation after being limited for two months by inflammation in his throwing arm.
But in the past two weeks, starters Max Meyer (ankle) and Sam Thoresen (undisclosed) have suffered injuries, leaving them questionable this week.
“Now, we’re just going day-to-day and trying to piece it together,” Anderson said.
The Gophers managed to finish the regular season on a positive note. Since a 5-4 loss to Wisconsin-Milwaukee on May 1, they have won eight of 10 games. The Gophers went 7-2 in their final three conference series to finish with a 15-9 record in the Big Ten. They finished in a three-way tie for third place (with Illinois and Nebraska) and are the No. 4 seed for the tournament. The Gophers will play No. 5 seed Nebraska in Wednesday’s first round.
In their regular-season finale Saturday, the Gophers took a 4-3 lead before a three-hour rain delay and held on for a 5-4 win at Northwestern.
“That speaks volumes about our team,” said Anderson. “It would have been easy to mail it in on Saturday. We only got three innings from our starter because of the long rain delay. And, the game didn’t mean much, just whether we’d be the home team in the first round. They didn’t flinch. We have some flaws, but we’ve kept battling and it’s been fun. I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”
If Meyer and Thoresen aren’t available, Anderson likely will choose from Fredrickson, Joshua Culliver, Nick Lackney and Jake Stevenson. Culliver has started 12 games this season, Lackney and Stevenson two each.
“We’ll just have to reshuffle,” Anderson said. “This team has been very resilient all season.”
That has been on display after the Gophers played their first 21 games on the road and started the season just 2-11. Since then the Gophers, whose strength-of-schedule is ranked No. 30 in the nation, are 24-14.
“We believe in playing a tough schedule,” said Anderson, in his 38th season as the Gophers coach. “It challenges you and makes you better. With a young team, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy.”
Anderson said one example is freshman infielder Zack Raabe, who was hitting .189 after 22 games and .258 on May 1. He finished the regular season with nine-game hitting streak (15-for-41) to raise his batting average to .286 — the second-best on the team.
“He’s hung in there,” said Anderson. “He’s starting to figure out pitching at this level. At times it’s been difficult. But he was determined to figure it out.”
Junior catcher Eli Wilson leads the Gophers with a .290 average and on Tuesday was named first team All-Big Ten. Meyer was named to the all-conference second team.
Shortstop Jordan Kozicky leads the team with 10 home runs and 43 RBI.