Yesterday, we took a broad look at the College Station Regional and saw an overview of the four teams competing in the double-elimination bracket. Today, we begin a deeper dive into the region beginning with Wake Forest's opening opponent: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
The Golden Gophers, out of the Big 10 Conference, received an at-large bid into the Tournament after piecing together a 32-20 overall record (16-7 B10). Minnesota won the regular season championship in the conference by half a game over Nebraska. The Big 10 was ranked by the RPI as the 7th most difficult conference overall. Despite the regular season title, Minnesota dropped their regular season series finale at home to Ohio State and then struggled in the conference tournament: losing its opener to 8th seeded Iowa before falling to Michigan in a close 3-2 elimination game.
Despite this late season hiccup, the Gophers not only made it into the NCAA Tournament, but locked up a two seed in the Texas A&M Region. As far as two seeds go, Wake likely could not have asked for a better opening game in the Tournament. The Gophers, while likely deserving of an NCAA bid due to the regular season conference title, had the third worst RPI (50) of any at-large bid and the worst RPI of any two seed in this year's bracket.
While RPI is not the end all be all of metrics (and we have talked at length over the course of various sports of the numerous shortcomings of the RPI), it provides a good snapshot of where teams stand at this point of the season. Furthermore, using the composite computer rankings provided by Massey, the Gophers are still the worst two seed overall.
The point of this was not to bash Minnesota, who by all accounts had a solid season led by a very good offensive output, but rather to indicate that even as a three seed the Diamond Deacs have a good opening draw for the NCAA Tournament.
So how has Minnesota fared thus far this season against teams roughly the same caliber as Wake Forest? In short, it's somewhat difficult to tell due to small sample size. The Gophers, like many northern teams, opened with a lot of neutral and road games which is reflected in the disproportionate number of games they played in these venues compared to home (35 road/neutral vs. only 17 home games). Minnesota did not even play their first home game until April 1, when they opened their conference season with a series win over Iowa.
The Deacs are currently 25th in the RPI and on paper will be the best team the Gophers have played all year. Minnesota has played seven total games against top 50 RPI teams (3-4 in these games), but the best RPI team they've played up to this point was Ohio State two weekends ago at home. As mentioned above, the Gophers dropped two of these three games but all three games were decided by a one-run margin. The Gophers took two of three on the season from Michigan (38 RPI), and dropped their only other game against a top 50 opponent to Oregon State way back in the middle of February.
With all this background in mind about the two teams overall, let's take a look at the guys who Minnesota will most likely send out on Friday in the opening game - beginning with the position players (note that this is not the projected batting lineup, but rather the players in order of position beginning with catcher):
|C Austin Athmann
|1B Toby Hanson
|2B Connor Schaefbauer
|3B Micah Coffey
|SS Luke Pettersen
|or Riley Smith
|or Terrin Vavra
|LF Jordan Smith
|CF Dan Motl
|RF Alex Boxwell
|or Matt Stemper
|DH Matt Fiedler
Based on the overall body of work and the postseason accolades, Matt Fiedler is the guy to look out for on the Gophers roster. In addition to leading the team in batting average, usually from the three spot in the lineup, Fiedler was the Friday starter for the Gophers amassing an overall record of 7-3 with a 4.10 ERA. In conference play Fiedler went 4-0 with a 3.33 ERA. As good as he was on the mound, he was even better at the plate batting .377 and hitting 7 home runs while driving in 35 RBI's and stealing 13 total bases. For his efforts on both sides of the ball, Fiedler was named Big 10 Player of the Year.
Despite the attention Fiedler has gotten, another guy who cannot be overlooked offensively is catcher Austin Athmann who normally bats cleanup. Athmann made 1st Team All Big 10 and led the team with 11 home runs while driving in 39 runs. Second baseman Connor Schaefbaeur also made 1st Team All Big 10 on the back of a .316 average while hitting 5 home runs and driving in 36 RBI's. With Schaefbaeur batting second, followed by the aforementioned Fiedler and Athmann, the Deacs will have to be careful with how they work this this early portion of the lineup.
While the batting lineup is not set in stone, based on recent games we have a pretty good idea of how the Gophers will bat. The first five guys will almost certainly be: Motl, Schaefbauer, Fiedler, Athmann, and Coffey. Each of these five guys received either 1st or 2nd Team Big 10 honors and will be difficult at times to navigate. The bottom half of the lineup has varied, presumably based on pitching matchups and getting guys rest days, but Jordan Smith, Matt Stemper, and Toby Hanson all have over 100 at bats on the year so, barring injury, the Deacs should expect to see all of these guys at some point Friday. Terrin Vavra is injured and not expected to play.
On the pitching side of things, Wake should expect Fiedler to get the nod on Friday just as he has all year. The difficulty in projecting starters in Regionals stems from a difference in viewpoint on when to use your best pitchers. Some managers prefer to throw their top guy out there from the get go and get a win under their belts right away while others may try to look at the region as a whole and pick a good spot for their ace to go that may not necessarily be your traditional Friday start. Regardless, it seems that Wake should expect to see Fiedler on Friday unless they hear otherwise.
If Fiedler doesn't get the nod, the other two guys who started games in conference play were Toby Anderson and Dalton Sawyer. Anderson went 4-1 in Big 10 play with a 2.52 ERA, but only recorded 16 strikeouts in 50 innings while throwing two complete games. Sawyer was more of a power guy, striking out 63 guys in 49.1 innings, which helped him stake out a 2.92 ERA and 4-3 record in conference play.
Closer Jordan Jess pieced together an incredible conference year and recorded seven saves with a minuscule .84 ERA while striking out 13 guys in just 10.2 innings pitched. If Jess gets in the game in a close one, Wake may be hard pressed to even get a guy on base as he allowed only seven total base runners in Big 10 competition.
This was a long one, but we wanted to get as much information as possible about Minnesota out there. If anyone has questions or comments about the Gophers drop us a line below. Tomorrow morning we will take a look at what can be expected from the Wake side of things regarding lineup choices, pitching decisions, and an overall look at how Wake could approach the regional as a whole.
Minnesota will pose a challenge in the opener and Wake will need to come in focused and clicking to get past the Big 10 regular season champion. Hopefully Wake can get it done; and as always, go Deacs!