Monday, February 18, 2008

2008 BTH Preview: Minnesota

Head Coach: John Anderson
2007 record: 41-18; 18-9 in Big Ten (lost in NCAA Regionals)
2007 RPI: 50
2008 Projected Big Ten Finish:
Collegiate Baseball - 4th
Rivals - 2nd

At The Plate: Minnesota’s lineup is paced by juniors Nate Hanson and Matt Nohelty. Both were named first team All-Big Ten in their sophomore seasons. Hanson, a third baseman, hit .338 with ten homers and fifty-one RBI. Hanson also slugged at a .533 clip and scored 50 runs. Nohelty, the Gophers’ CF, hit .367, scored 48 runs and stole 24 bases. Nohelty’s career Big Ten average is .393.

Joining Hanson in the Gophers infield are senior 2B Jeremy Chlan (.241) and sophomore SS Derek McCallum (.340 with 34 RBI). Firstbase remains a battle between Joe Maciej, Tom Steidl and freshman Nick O‘Shea. Expect to see both Jeff Desmidt and Kyle Knudson get time at catcher.

The right field job appears to be between freshman Michael Kvasnicka and junior Jon Hummel. Kvasnicka, Minnesota’s Gatorade High School Player of the Year, is the favorite. He’s also the son of former Golden Gopher, Jay Kvasnicka. The leftfield slot is a battle between Jeff Engel and Eric Decker. Engel, a senior, sat out last year after transferring from Iowa. Sophomore Decker played football this fall and was sixth in the Big Ten in receptions and seventh in yards. A walk-on, Brooks Albrecht, might also push his way into the OF.

The designated hitter will probably come down to O’Shea, Kvasnicka or Hummel, whichever isn’t in the field will still get to swing the bat.

On The Mound: The Gophers return a number of experienced arms to their rotation. Dustin Braebender (5-1, 4.40) and Tom Buske (5-2, 3.43) will vie for the Friday role. Braebender, a senior, is coming off a spectacular NCAA Regional performance where he beat USD’s All-America Brian Matusz. Buske, a junior, was Minnesota’s number one pitcher from about mid-April on last year. Regardless of which one grabs the Friday honor this season, the Gophers will have two veteran arms atop the rotation.

The other two weekend starts appear to belong to juniors Kyle Carr and Tyler Oakes (3-2, 5.16). Carr (5-2, 3.95, 8 saves) was a third team All-Big Ten relief pitcher in 2007, but moves into the rotation this season. Sophomore Allen Bechstein (2-0, 4.25) did get some starts last year and could wind up in the rotation.

While veterans have the lead in the rotation, youth will be served in the Gophers’ bullpen. A pair of freshman -- Scott Matyas and Seth Rosin -- appear to be the leading candidates to secure the closer’s spot. Coach Anderson also has JUCO transfer Chauncey Handran in the late inning mix.

The Schedule: The highlights of the non-conference slate are three games at Mississippi, the DQ Classic field -- TCU, Tulane and Pepperdine and three more road affairs at Pacific. California, Northern Iowa and New Mexico also visit the Metrodome. In the Big Ten, the Gophers host IU, Illinois, Michigan and Penn State. The road features Ohio State, Northwestern, Purdue and Iowa.

Overall: Led by Hanson, Nohelty and a veteran rotation, Minnesota should have no problem making the Big Ten Tournament field. Whether or not the Gophers can make a repeat performance in the NCAA Tournament will depend on how well they tread through a rough pre-Big Ten slate. With a number of fresh faces looking to play a significant role, how quickly they can adjust to DI ball may hold the key to another berth in the field of sixty-four.