COLUMBUS, OH- By the time the top of the third inning came to a close, the Minnesota Golden Gophers already had an entire game’s worth of offense to their name.
They had seven runs on eight hits, two different hitters, Cole McDevitt and Terrin Vavra, had home runs, seven different batters in the Minnesota order already had hits, and eight different batters had already reached base. They also scored runs just about every way imaginable. They had the homers, sure, but they also scored runs on a couple of sac flies, took advantage of some OSU errors, moved runners along with sac bunts, stole a couple of bases, and played station-to-station baseball in a four-run third with singles and doubles.
The Golden Gophers’ offense was cranking on all cylinders, starting pitcher Reggie Meyer was settling in, and you could feel the air being sucked out of Bill Davis Stadium. Minnesota had effectively put a stranglehold on game one of this series, and they never looked back on the way to an 11-1 win.
“I thought we were ready to play from the first pitch of the game,” said Minnesota head coach John Anderson. “I was impressed with our preparation, I had a feeling just being around the guys before the game that they were ready to play. They’ve done an exceptional job this year of just really staying connected to who they are and not worrying about the other team or the standings or the scoreboard. They just set a standard for themselves in terms of their preparation and what they expect from one another and being ready to play everyday and how they want to compete and play the game.”
The fact that the Gophers got contributions like they did up and down the lineup isn’t a huge surprise. It’s just what they do. They’re hitting around .300 as a team and feature six regulars hitting well over that mark individually. Beyond the numbers, there’s evidence of this in the way they’re able to construct a lineup.
Ben Mezzenga is the team’s leading hitter, but on a day like this, when the Gophers were facing a tough lefty in Ohio State’s Connor Curlis, they’re confident enough in what they have elsewhere on the roster, in this case Riley Smith, to sit the left-handed Mezzenga until they forced Curlis from the game. That’s not a choice that most teams would be able to make, but Minnesota’s depth allows them to do so.
They’ve also got two catchers in Eli Wilson and McDevitt who are plusses from an offensive standpoint and force their way into the lineup everyday. Wilson had two hits on his own by the end of the third inning and McDevitt added another hit, a walk, and two more runs scored after his first-inning homer. Most programs would love to have one catcher they can rely on to contribute at the plate.
The Gophers are simply not overly reliant on any single player to carry them for any period of time, and that’s probably what makes them most dangerous.
“I think that’s one of our strengths,” Anderson said. “As you saw tonight, we had different guys in the lineup contribute all the way from one to nine and get big hits for us, and we’ve been able to match up some. I’ve used Riley (Smith), and it’s the first time I’ve played him in left field this year, but we used him to match up to get Ben (Mezzenga) out of there. He’s had a harder time against left-handed pitching. To have Riley and to have that option, it makes a difference in your lineup, especially when I can put him in the two spot.”
The headline for this particular game is the Gophers’ offensive outburst that put the game out of reach quickly, but if Minnesota is able to win at least one more game this weekend to capture the series, in hindsight, the headline might be the work put in by Meyer on the mound.
The big righty threw eight innings, giving up seven hits and one run with no walks and three strikeouts. But it didn’t necessarily look like it was going to be smooth sailing from the start. OSU plated a run on three hits in the first, and the only thing that kept it from being two runs, and perhaps more, was a throw from left field to home plate to nab Noah McGowan trying to score on a Dillon Dingler single.
Then, in the second inning, the Buckeyes’ leadoff hitter in the frame, Tyler Cowles, reached on a hit by pitch to get things started, and it looked like yet another OSU rally was underway. A few pitches later, however, Brady Cherry grounded into a double play, and the rally was effectively over before it began in earnest.
For Anderson, that double play with Cherry at the dish was a turning point.
“I thought the first two innings he made some big pitches,” he said. “They had guys on, and then in the second inning, he got the big double play ball. The game was still in the balance, it was early in the game, and I thought that pitch he made right there to get that double play in the second inning was a big part of the game. We got back in the dugout and were able to get our offense going again.”
From that point forward, it was smooth sailing. Meyer never allowed more than one hit in any single inning after the first, and an OSU runner reached scoring position just twice, in the third and the seventh (interestingly, both as a result of wild pitches). Now, the Gophers are set up nicely for the final two games of the series, as each of the dynamic bullpen trio of Max Meyer, Brett Schulze, and Jackson Rose are available and ready to go when called upon.
Reggie Meyer has been this type of pitcher all season long for Minnesota, and that’s been a huge development. At the outset of the year, his steadiness at the front of the rotation was much-needed because he was the closest thing to a proven commodity they had in the rotation after putting up a 3.18 ERA and holding opponents to a .194 batting average in a swingman role a year ago.
As the season has worn on, his presence has perhaps made it easier for the Gophers to turn to two freshmen, Patrick Fredrickson and Sam Thoresen, in the other spots in the rotation. That move has already paid off to a certain degree, particularly in the case of Fredrickson, who will sport a nifty 1.68 ERA going into his scheduled start on Saturday, but it stands to pay bigger dividends come the Big Ten tournament, and presumably, regionals, when those freshmen will already have been introduced to the idea of being put on the bump in big games.
Minnesota is currently going through their most difficult stretch of conference games this season. They took two out of three from fellow regional hopeful Iowa last weekend. They’ve got two more this weekend with an Ohio State team very much in the postseason mix as well, and next weekend, they welcome Indiana to Siebert Field.
After these three weekends, we’ll know a whole lot more about Minnesota’s postseason position, including whether or not they can play their way into a host spot, which might be somewhat unlikely, but isn’t out of the question. What we already know is that, with an offense than can beat you one through nine, a rotation led by a steady veteran who sets the tone each week, and a bullpen that’s really come together throughout the year, the Gophers can control all facets of the game extremely well, just as they did in the win over the Buckeyes Friday night.