The list of all-time baseball greats from South Dakota isn’t especially long. Sparky Anderson, Jason Kubel, Floyd Bannister, Mark Ellis, Dave Collins and Terry Francona were all born in the Mount Rushmore state, but most of them moved elsewhere for high school.
The Gophers haven’t relied on many South Dakota natives in recent years, with Tom Doyle being an exception in the early 1990s.
But now Minnesota has a freshman from Sioux Falls, S.D., batting leadoff. Second baseman Connor Schaefbauer has been a catalyst for a team sitting atop the Big Ten standings heading into a three-game series against Nebraska starting Friday at Siebert Field.
“I take a lot of pride being from South Dakota,” Schaefbauer said. “I think the sports there get knocked for not being competitive, but I would have to disagree. So when I’m out there playing, it’s also reflecting on South Dakota.”
Schaefbauer is batting .309 with a team-best .396 on-base percentage and has yet to make an error in 102 chances at second base.
“We thought he’d be a difference maker,” Gophers coach John Anderson said. “When you recruit them, you never know, but he’s gotten out of the gate here pretty good.”
The 6-1, 175-pound Schaefbauer recently accepted an invitation to play in the Cape Cod League this summer, giving him a chance to play alongside some of the nation’s top underclassmen.
He went undrafted out of O’Gorman High School, where he was a quarterback, basketball guard and shortstop. He won three state championships in basketball and played in three Legion state championship games.
In 2011, Schaefbauer hit .464 with a .522 OBP and 30 stolen bases during the Legion season. But his draft stock took a hit last winter when he injured his throwing shoulder playing basketball. He went for a steal and almost dislocated his right shoulder.
“The first time I threw after I got hurt, the ball maybe went 10 feet, and it hurt like crazy,” Schaefbauer said.
He played through the injury last summer and altered his throwing motion, picking up bad mechanics that had to be cleaned up during fall practice with the Gophers. He was a shortstop in Sioux Falls, but was moved to second base.
“We were trying to build his arm back up,” Anderson said. “Last fall, it wasn’t very good, and obviously he’s come miles since then. Maybe he’ll end up over there [at shortstop] someday before his career’s over here.”
Offensively, Schaefbauer has a smooth, lefthanded swing with a plate discipline that makes him look wise beyond his years. Anderson admits he might have been overprotective of Schaefbauer earlier this season. Always wary of shattering a freshman’s confidence, the 32nd-year coach kept Schaefbauer low in the batting order and sat him against lefthanded pitching. Two weeks ago, Anderson took off the reins, moving Schaefbauer into the leadoff spot.
Schaefbauer has yet to hit for power, with five doubles serving as his only extra-base hits. But since moving to the leadoff spot, he is 8-for-26 with nine walks.
“The more at-bats I’ve gotten, the more comfortable I feel,” he said. “And being in the lineup with a lot of veterans, it makes it easier on me personally. I know we’ve got a bunch of leaders, so it kind of gives me the freedom to just play.”