Patrick Reusse
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The Big Ten waited longer than other major conferences to start a baseball season. When it finally did so, the schedule consisted of 44 conference games and a ban on nonconference games.

Even those midweek games against regional opponents that have been used to get work for inexperienced pitchers since the days of the legendary Dick Siebert were gone for the Gophers.

"We didn't have any fall ball, either, so we had pitchers with very few innings of college experience being thrown right into the Big Ten," Gophers coach John Anderson said. "We've also had Tommy John surgeries and other injuries, and some of our vets are not doing as well as we expected.''

Anderson paused and said: "I'm calling this the COVID Crash."

This was an hour after the Gophers lost 9-5 to Michigan on Sunday at Siebert Field. It was the seventh loss in a row, and solidified the Gophers' hold on last place (13th) at 4-20 in the Big Ten.

Not only is this unheard of in Anderson's 40 seasons as the Gophers head coach, by winning percentage it is unheard of since the University of Minnesota's baseball club went 0-1 in 1888.

These Gophers have lost a half-dozen games by outrageous scores, including 21-5 to Michigan on Friday. This was followed by Saturday's 4-0 shutout.

2021 Gophers baseball scores and schedule

Yet, the Gophers were chatting it up nonstop as senior Josh Culliver took the mound Sunday. He had a 1-2-3 top of the first, and hope sent the Gophers rushing toward the dugout and the bat rack.

They didn't score. Michigan scored three in the second. Easton Bertrand's two-run home run cut it to 3-2 in the third. And then, Michigan shortstop Benjamin Sems hit a two-run home run that restored the three-run lead in the sixth.

And that's when a reporter picked up on this twist in COVID-ball 2021:

Sems was a four-year standout at Kansas, then came to Michigan as a graduate transfer. The same was true with third baseman Christian Molfetta from Stanford and catcher Griffin Mazur from Cal-Irvine.

Normal circumstances — if you've played four years and none was as a redshirt, that's the end of eligibility. This time around, everyone received a do-over from the 2020 mini-season, allowing Michigan coach Erik Bakich to bring in talented, experienced players to fill holes.

The pandemic fallout allowed teams to go past the 35-player Division I limit to an unlimited number of players in 2021 (Michigan has 42) and to as many as 40 in 2022.

Anderson was told to stay at 35, what with Gophers programs being cut and an alleged gender-equity numbers issue. Baseball wound up at 37 this season, due to some injured athletes. The ceiling will be 35 in 2022, while the Bakiches are finding talented transfers to get to 40.

It's under the radar that baseball — as with football and basketball — had been a men's sport without free transfers until last week. Now that the transfer portal is set as the sweet nectar of second chances, Anderson must give it a try, but with fewer openings.

"We have nine freshman recruits coming in, and everybody on our current roster would be able come back," Anderson said. "Zach Raabe is going to get drafted and will probably sign … maybe a couple others.

"In 40 years, I've never asked a player that we recruited to leave the program just because it didn't work out for him here. But we're going to have to do something to be at 35."

After this season, the first true abomination in Anderson's four decades in charge, where does the coach find his optimism?

"We're going to have some juniors, after a summer of baseball and fall ball, that can be excellent players," Anderson said. "We've recruited well on the mound with the incoming freshmen. The league is going to continue to be deeper and more experienced than ever, and we have to get better."

Anderson, 66 next month, said: "The plan is to be back and to be good again. My contract is up this summer, so we'll see if everyone agrees with that.''