Gophers baseball enters Big Ten Tournament 'fighting for their lives'

The University of Minnesota baseball team knows what’s at stake as they enter the Big Ten Tournament Wednesday night.

The No. 4-seeded Gophers (26-25) face tournament host and No. 5-seeded Nebraska (28-20) under the lights Wednesday at Ameritrade Park, which is also the home of the College World Series. The Gophers are hoping it’s not the last time they see the facility this season, but they have an uphill climb just to get to the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota needs to win the Big Ten Tournament to extend its season. It’s a tough reality to face after winning 44 games last year, hosting a regional and being two wins away from the College World Series.

“We’re fighting for our lives right now and our season is not going to continue unless we win the tournament. We know that, but I think they’ve been in that mode for a while here just based on the way we started our season,” Gophers coach John Anderson said.

Anderson is referring to the team’s 2-11 start to the season, which included a seven-game losing streak. The Gophers had the toughest non-conference schedule in the Big Ten and spent the first six weeks of the season on the road for 21 straight games.

Minnesota finished 8-13 in those first 21 games, and won eight of 11 games near the end of that stretch.

The Gophers also faced the annual challenge of any Minnesota sport in the spring: Mother Nature. The combination of rain, snow and cold forced several cancellations and delays.

It didn’t do them any favors in the final regular season series at Northwestern, either. Yet they still managed to win two out of three in the series.

“Again like last year, the weather has been horrendous. Long days at the ballpark, Saturday was another long day at Northwestern. Got back at 3:30 in the morning Sunday and a quick turnaround here. But it’s been a season of challenges, and I’m really proud of this group because they’ve taken them head-on,” Anderson said. “They’ve had opportunities to pack it in and move on, but they haven’t.”

The Gophers are 8-2 in their last 10 games heading into the Big Ten Tournament. That includes the series win at Northwestern, and beating Maryland two games out of three in the final regular season series at Siebert Field.

The Gophers are hoping they’re peaking at the right time.

“Now is the right time to get hot. I think the beginning of the season in our struggles, they prepared us well for moments like now. They prepared us well throughout Big Ten play,” said junior infielder Jordan Kozicky, who leads Minnesota with 10 homers and 43 RBI in 50 games. “The rough start, we knew that wasn’t who we are. We knew our record didn’t indicate the type of ball club we really were.”

The Gophers’ success at the end of the regular season comes despite being without starting pitchers Max Meyer and Sam Thoreson. Both are battling injuries. Thoreson could potentially pitch at the Big Ten Tournament, but Meyer is more questionable with an ankle injury. If he does pitch, Anderson said it will be in spot stints.

Minnesota opened Big Ten play against the Nebraska squad it will be facing Wednesday night. The Gophers won the first game 5-2 in 10 innings, lost the second 10-1 but got the series win with a 3-2 victory in the third game.

They say it’s difficult to take much from the series. It was in late March at Siebert Field.

“It’s going to be another close ballgame like it was that whole series. It’ll be fun playing in Omaha with their thousands of fans that will be there,” Kozicky said. “I’m excited to play them first round for sure.”

Anderson said Patrick Fredrickson will get the start Wednesday night against Nebraska. He’s 2-3 in nine starts with a 4.46 earned run average. He has 37 strikeouts and 30 walks in 42 1/3 innings.

If the Gophers win, they would face the winner of No. 1 Indiana and No. 8 Iowa Thursday night. The tournament is double elimination. They’re going to take the Big Ten Tournament day-by-day. There simply is no other choice.

It’s not what Anderson had anticipated in his 38th season with the Gophers. They’re not going to give up just because the start was slower than they hoped.

“Every day just throwing punches, fighting for their lives and trying to win the day. That’s no different than what we’re going to have to approach this weekend with,” Anderson said.