Minnesota Baseball: A Quick Gopher Baseball Preview as Season Begins This Week

via GopherSports.com

Gopher baseball does not get a lot of coverage here on TDG but every once in a while I try to give updates on one of athletic department's more successful programs; revenue or non-revenue.

  • 3 National Championships
  • 5 College World Series appearances
  • 30 NCAA Tournament appearances (7 since 2000)
  • 22 Big Ten Titles
  • 9 Big Ten Tournament Titles

A very successful program but the Gopher baseball season is going to be a little different this year than in year's past.  Gone is the warm confines of the HHH Metrodome which served as a safe place to play baseball in Minnesota during February and March (and April and May).  Last year the Gophers played 34 home games.  This year they will be able to play on their home field just 18 times.  That is a dramatic change and certainly an additional challenge.

But this roster is used to a challenging schedule as Coach Jon Anderson pits his teams against some of the best programs in the country year after year.  The premier, non-conference opponent this year is a late-season trip to Tallahassee to face the preseason #6 Florida State Seminoles in a three-game series.

Last year's squad finished 4th in the Big Ten.  What really held them back was their in ability to hit and score runs.  The 2013 Gophers finished 10th in batting and 8th in runs scored.  Where they made up ground was their pitching and defense which finished 2nd and 4th respectively in the conference.  Gone are their top three hitters, top 2 starting pitchers, their career leader in saves and most of their outfield.  But this program isn't exactly in rebuilding mode, there are some nice pieces returning and this should still be a competitive team.

The season begins on Friday (Valentine's Day, a friendly reminder to the males reading this) with a neutral site game against Northern Illinois in Glendale, AZ.  Who is returning and who will be leading your Gopher squad this year?  Here is a look at who will be contributing as the Gophers try to make a run at Big Ten favorite, Indiana (pre-season #3 in the country) and earn their 23rd Big Ten title.


INFIELD

This appears to be the returning strength of the Gophers, with a number of players back from last year's team.  There are four position players who return with having started at least 20 games last year, they all reside in the infield.  Connor Schaefbauer (2B), Michael Handle (SS), Dan Olinger (1B/DH) and Matt Halloran (C) all started more than half of the team's games last year and will be relied upon this year to lead the Gophers.  Here are your early season IF starters.

C - Matt Halloran - Senior catcher who was used in spot duty behind the plate to give days off to Kurt Schlangen who was a 2nd team All-Big Ten catcher.  Halloran started 37 games as a sophomore, hit .307 and was fourth on the team in slugging.  But as a junior his numbers dropped off and he hit just .225 while starting 36 games.  Expected to the be primary catcher this year and hopefully his bat returns for his last year as a Gopher.

1B - Mark Tatera - Junior who started 19 games last year, hitting .258.  Tatera made starts at DH (10), 3B (4), 1B (3) and RF (2); also is listed on the roster as a catcher.  Clearly he is a versatile player who also needs to improve his hitting this year to help the Gopher offense.

2B - Connor Schaefbauer - The only returning All-Big Ten honoree on this year's squad, Schaefbauer was recognized as 3rd Team All-Big Ten last year.  As a true freshman he hit .279 starting 37 games and sported a .993 fielding percentage.  Schaefbauer is just a sophomore but will be a key for the Gophers this year offensively and defensively.

SS - Michael Handle - Known as a very good defensive player, Handle started 51 games last year; all at shortstop.  The junior from Sun Prairie, WI hit .245 last season and led the Gophers with his 3 HRs.  Handle also led the team last year in stolen bases with 9 in 10 attempts and was 2nd in walks so I would anticipate you will see him hitting near the top of the order (that is just speculation though).

3B - Tony Skjefte - Had 17 starts last year 2B and will begin the season as the team's third baseman.  Skjefte is a junior from Eden Prairie and he batted .237 last year.

DH - Dan Olinger - started 48 games at 1B last year and I'm sure will see action there this year as well but for game one it appears he'll be starting at DH.  Olinger, like Halloran, had a strong 2012 season at the plate hitting .318 (2nd on the team) but fell .246 last year.  The senior, like the rest of the offense, will need to improve upon that number.

OUTFIELD

This is where more starts are going to have to be replaced.  The outfield was manned primarily by Andy Henkemeyer in LF and Troy Larson in CF last year.  The two combined for 103 starts, but both have moved on.  This year's outfield will have one familiar name and a couple younger names.

RF - Bobby Juan - Senior from LaCrosse, WI hit .307 as a sophomore and dropped to .197 as a junior (are you seeing a pattern here?).  Juan started 19 games in RF last year and will be the primary starter there in 2013.

CF - Dan Motl - replacing the talented Troy Larson is no small feat but the sophomore from Burnsville earned 14 starts as a freshman hitting .194 with 12 strikeouts in 36 at bats.

LF Jordan Smith - redshirt freshman from Eden Prairie is the only freshman in the game one starting lineup.

PITCHING

This was the strength of the Gophers last year, finishing 2nd in the Big Ten in ERA and first in strikeouts per inning pitched.  DJ Snelton and Tom Windle were both 1st Team All-Big Ten selections with Billy Soule on the back end as on of the better closers in the league as well.  All three are gone and leave big shoes to fill on the mound.

Friday Starter - Alec Crawford - a JUCO transfer who came on strong last year starting 9 games, 2.28 ERA and the team was 6-3 when he started.  Crawford was a very reliable third starter behind the Snelton/Windle combo giving the Gophers an excellent trio.  He now moves into the Friday starter role.

Saturday Starter - Jordan Jess - The sophomore lefty will split the two right-handers as the Saturday starter.  Jess started 4 games last year, mostly in mid-week games against non-Big Ten competition.

Sunday Starter - Ben Meyer - Meyer made 8 starts, finished with a 2.80 ERA and seemed to get better as the season went along.  Meyer is a junior from New Brighton and is an imposing 6'5" on the mound.

Other Pitchers

Kevin Kray - senior who pitched 24 innings last season, all out of the bullpen.  His final eight appearances last year resulted in an ERA of 0.80 and WHIP of 0.89.

Dalton Sawyer - started 1 game last year with 17 other appearances for 35 2/3 innings pitched, all as a freshman.  Expect Sawyer to be heavily used out of the bullpen again this year.  Another tall pitcher who stands on the mound at 6'4".

Ty McDevitt - 5 starts, 16 total apperances as a sophomore and had a nice 2.92 ERA for the Apple Valley native.  I would expect McDevitt to get a handful of starts throughout the season as well as being used out of the bullpen.

There are a handful of other names who saw some action last year as well as upcoming freshmen who may contribute but it is hard to gauge not only who will contribute but who will be relied upon.

This is the bulk of the 2014 Gopher baseball team.  The keys to a successful season are pretty clear.  Improve hitting which languished at the bottom of the league last year after a decent year at the plate in 2012.  Secondly they need to replace a lot of valuable innings on the mound.

The season kicks off on Friday.  We will try to give regular updates on the team throughout the season.

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