The 2015 Gopher baseball season was one to forget. The proud Gopher Baseball program, with 22 Big Ten titles and 9 tournament championships (tied for most) spent the vast majority of the season on the road and limped to a 21-30 finish. 9-15 in conference and a 9th place finish.
This year the expectations were low. When the preseason favorites were announce, the Gophers were nowhere near the announced top 6. The favorites?
But the Gophers have come out of nowhere to be leading the Big Ten through the first half of the conference schedule. Leading with a 9-2 league record, a 1-game lead over Michigan and they have already faced the preseason's predicted top 2. Minnesota completed a 2-game sweep over Michigan on the road, took 2 out of 3 from Maryland and took 2 out of 3 from Iowa.
Based on RPI the Gophers rank 23rd nationally and D1Baseball.com has them 19th following a sweep of Northwestern this weekend. Over their last 17 games the Gophers have lost just twice. This week they have a trip to Fargo to face NDSU and then they head to Champaign to face Illinois for this weekend's Big Ten series.
Why the surprising turnaround?
Hitting and defense seem to be the dominant factors. A year ago the Gophers languished near the bottom of the conference in hitting, they were middle-to-lower in the pitching ranks and their fielding was in the top third of the league. This year they lead the league in batting, lead the league in fielding and pitching is squarely in the middle.
Matt Fielder has been the team's MVP and might be making a solid case to be the Big Ten Player of the Year. The junior from Eagan is the team's Friday pitcher where he has a 6-2 record, including 3-0 in his four Big Ten stars. Then for Saturday and Sunday he plays in the field. At the plate, Fielder leads the Big Ten in batting average with an overall .403 BA (.400 in B1G games).
Austin Athmann is the team's catcher, is 3rd in the league in hitting (.396), tied for 4th in the Big Ten with 8 HRs and just earned his first Big Ten Player of the Week honors after knocking out 2 HRs this week and had 7 RBIs.
On the mound on Saturday's is Dalton Sawyer a 6-5 SR lefty from Waconia who was expected to be the team's Friday starter. Sawyer is second in the Big Ten in strikeouts and leads Gopher starters with a 3.47 ERA.
Those superlative seasons by the players listed above plus the experience and fielding of guys like Connor Schaefbauer (2B), Dan Motle (CF), Luke Pettersen (SS) and Jordan Smith (OF) have made it all come together to be a very nice and exciting season for Gopher baseball. Also worth noting is that freshman Terrin Vavra has had a fantastic freshman season splitting a lot of time at SS with Pettersen.
What does this all mean?
1 - You should get out and watch this team. Home games remaining...
- Kansas May 3-4
- Indiana May 6-8
- Ohio State May 19-21
The new Siebert Field is beautiful and this is a talented and fun team to watch. Get out and support them.
2 - The look ahead is always natural. With a tiebreaker over Michigan and not having to face Michigan State the Gophers have a real chance to end up the Big Ten's regular season champions. And then what comes of the NCAA Tournament?
Currently the Gophers have a very high RPI after going on the road for much of the early part of the season, including some games against quality teams. They took Oregon State to the brink and they took 2 of 3 from Missouri State. RPI is looking good, wins over Missouri State and Michigan are going to help them as well and ultimately a strong finish looks to have this team in contention for an at-large bid should they fall in the Big Ten Tournament.
Fun to have a good Gopher squad this spring. Get out to watch them and Go Gophers!