COLUMBUS, OH- Leaning on freshmen, particularly freshmen pitchers, can go a couple of different ways.
As talented as any player is at this level of college baseball, we’ve all seen situations where things get sideways on freshman pitchers in big spots. Perhaps the moment just gets too big for them. Maybe they’re afraid to come after guys and they start to nibble or struggle with walks. Sometimes, they just simply hit a wall as they have trouble dealing with the rigors of a full 56-game college season.
But we’ve all also seen the flip side of this, where freshmen step up and immediately become a huge part of a team’s success, and show none of the trepidation and timidness of a first-year player trying to make his way in Division I baseball.
For Minnesota’s Patrick Fredrickson and Max Meyer, their experience as freshmen has decidedly been closer to the latter.
After beginning the season in the bullpen, Fredrickson has stepped into the weekend rotation and handled the role with aplomb, giving the Gophers a quality one-two punch, along with veteran Reggie Meyer. Max Meyer, meanwhile, has been a key bullpen arm from the start and serves as the team’s closer.
On Saturday, the pair combined to shut down Ohio State’s offense in a 2-1 win, clinching the key Big Ten series for Minnesota.
Fredrickson, a native of Gig Harbor, Washington, threw a career-high eight innings, giving up eight hits and one run with no walks and seven strikeouts. It wasn’t the most dominant start you’ll ever see, but that’s kind of the point here. OSU had at least one runner on base against Fredrickson in every inning except the sixth, and their leadoff hitter reached base to start an inning four different times, but only once, when the Buckeyes manufactured a run in the first, did it lead to a run.
Every other time, the 6-foot-6 righty kept his head, continued to make pitches, and just generally showed no fear when faced with adversity. That’s saying a lot for a freshman in a game on the road, in a game that was tight from beginning to end, against a tough lineup for a fellow potential regional team, in conference play. With the way he seemed to handle the situation, you would have thought he was tossing a simulated game in an indoor facility during fall practice.
It’s Fredrickson’s ability to do things like that, and his general fearlessness, that has most stuck with Minnesota head coach John Anderson so far.
“No fear,” Anderson said of what has been a pleasant surprise about the performance of Fredrickson so far this season. “For a freshman, you don’t see that very often. Sometimes they worry about the step to Division I baseball, (they say) ‘can I really compete and play at this level,’ and I haven’t seen that look in his eye where he’s been scared or afraid. He’s an interesting guy. Between innings, he sits in there and has conversations with people about whatever. You wouldn’t think he’s even pitching in the game. I think he does a good job of being able to focus when he has to, and then backing way.”
As good as he was today, the outing didn’t do much to improve Fredrickson’s ERA, but that’s only because he’s been outstanding all season. He’s 6-0 with a 1.61 ERA (down from 1.68 to begin the game). In 61.2 innings of work, he’s struck out 47, walked just 13, and held opponents to a .206 batting average.
“What we saw last fall was that he was a three-pitch command guy, that he had three pitches that he could use effectively,” Anderson said. “I think when you have three pitches that you can use, you can be effective. It’s hard to hit when you have to defend three pitches. What we also saw in the fall is that he had great composure on the mound. Nothing really seems to bother him, and he just goes out there and executes three pitches, and that’s the way he’s been all year.”
With some others getting first crack at being in the weekend rotation alongside veteran Reggie Meyer, Fredrickson began the year in a relief role, but as time went on, Anderson felt compelled to move him into a bigger role. There was one particular relief appearance, in fact, that served as a catalyst for the move that has now paid off so handsomely.
“I remember we brought him in against UCLA,” Anderson said. “He went to high school with the first baseman (Michael Toglia). They went to Gig Harbor together. We brought him in with the bases loaded and nobody out, and he struck out the side and struck him (Toglia) out on three changeups. That’s when it really opened my eyes a little bit that the kid had no fear. When you can do that as a freshman, we just felt we we had to find a way to get him out there more often.”
At first glance, you would have to assume that this is Fredrickson’s best start for the Gophers. How could it not be? It was his career-long outing, and given that he’s not a guy who routinely piles up massive strikeout numbers in his starts, his seven strikeouts were impressive in their own right.
When you take a wider look, though, it’s tough to say which is his best start because he’s been so consistent since moving to the rotation.
Against Creighton, he threw six innings, giving up two hits and one run in a 15-1 Gophers win. Against TCU, in a series-clinching win, he threw five shutout innings with one walk and five strikeouts. He threw seven shutout innings against Nebraska, giving up just four hits along the way. Against Penn State, it was 7.1 innings with just one unearned run surrendered. Last weekend against Iowa, he threw 7.2 shutout innings in a 3-0 win, which clinched that pivotal conference series for Minnesota.
So you can see why it would be tough for Anderson to classify this as his best start of the season.
“I don’t think it’s the best he’s been for us this year,” Anderson said. “What’s his best? He’s been consistent like this. He’s a strike-thrower, he’s used three pitches, he’s been able to make the big pitch when he’s had to make the big pitch. And really it just seems like nothing fazes him.”
Max Meyer walked a couple of hitters in the ninth inning, but was able to pick up where Fredrickson left off and close out the victory. On the season, Meyer, a righty with high-octane stuff, has a 1.88 ERA and 11 saves. In 24 innings, he’s struck out 26, walked just eight, and held opponents to a .145 batting average.
He and Fredrickson, along with this weekend’s Sunday starter, fellow freshman Sam Thoresen, are manning some of the most important roles on the pitching staff, showing the confidence that Anderson and his staff have in these precocious youngsters.
“I can’t remember, in my career, where I’ve had two starters that are freshman and a closer that was a freshman, to be honest with you,” Anderson said. “And that was a big question mark for us coming into the year. I thought we had an experienced position player team, we could play some defense, I thought we could put together some pretty good at-bats, but we just didn’t know what was going to happen with our pitching staff.”
Fredrickson, a complement to Reggie Meyer in the rotation, and Max Meyer at the back end of the bullpen have been answers to some of those questions. And when they pitch as well as they did Saturday, they make Minnesota as well-rounded and dynamic as any team in the Big Ten.
Other Thoughts from Columbus
- You have to feel for Ryan Feltner, who got the tough-luck loss for Ohio State on Saturday. He threw a career-high seven innings, all the while striking out nine, which tied his season-high. The only run he surrendered was unearned, which continues the strange trend this season of the OSU defense letting Feltner down. On the season, 15 unearned runs have come home with him on the mound. Connor Curlis and Adam Niemeyer, the Buckeyes’ other two weekend starters, have each had only seven unearned runs come home, even with relatively similar innings totals. Feltner has been up-and-down overall this season, but he’s actually been quite good in Big Ten play. Including Saturday, in five Big Ten starts, he has a 2.22 ERA in 28.1 innings of work.
- Minnesota second baseman Luke Pettersen showed why he’s one of the most dynamic players in the Big Ten with his play on Saturday. In the first inning, he ended the frame by chasing a Conner Pohl grounder into shallow right field and making a quick throw to first. Then, in the third, with Jacob Barnwell on at second base, he dove up the middle to stop a grounder off the bat of Kobie Foppe. Foppe was able to reach for a single, but Barnwell had to hold up at third when he probably would have been able to score if the ball had gone through. That play paid immediate dividends when the next hitter, Noah McGowan, was retired to end the inning. Later, in the top of the ninth, Pettersen created the go-ahead run out of thin air by making things happen with his speed. On second after singling and being moved over on a sac bunt, he took off for third base. Barnwell, the OSU catcher, threw to second base to try to catch the trail runner, Terrin Vavra, who reached on an intentional walk. The throw caromed into shallow center field, which allowed Pettersen to come all the way around to score. Anderson noted after the game that Pettersen made the decision to run on his own, making that play in that moment all the more impressive.
- In Friday’s piece, there was a brief allusion to Minnesota’s hosting chances. They still have work to do to truly get in position to do so, but the path is there. Let’s say that Minnesota finishes with an RPI in the mid-20s (they’re in the high-20s after the win on Saturday), with a record around .500 against the RPI top 50 (they have so many teams on their schedule floating right around 50 in the RPI that it’s hard to pinpoint how many games they’ll end up with against the top 50), and they win the Big Ten, a league that could put five, or perhaps even six, teams into regionals this season. That’s far from a slam-dunk case to host, but it’s a pretty solid case, and keep in mind that geographic need in host sites is a consideration of the selection committee, albeit a minor consideration, at least in cases when they have a few teams with similar resumes.