The only constant for the Gophers baseball team this year has been inconsistency. Games have been canceled on a weekly basis and as a result — or, less likely, coincidentally — an effective offense has repeatedly failed to materialize.
But head coach John Anderson believes second baseman Matt Puhl, who was hitting .219 entering the weekend, may hold the key to unlocking the enigma that is the Gophers’ offense.
Anderson experimented with the lineup a bit more than usual in the team’s most recent series with Iowa last weekend at Target Field. To shake things up, he inserted the team’s best hitter and usual leadoff man, AJ Pettersen, into the third spot in the batting order. Minnesota recorded only one hit in an improbable win and the change was scrapped Saturday.
One constant, though, was Puhl in the fifth slot behind the team’s most capable power threat and clean-up hitter, Nick O’Shea.
Puhl had a 4-for-6 Saturday that included three RBIs, a 10th-inning single that extended the game and a 12th-inning walk-off base hit.
The way Anderson constructs his lineup, his table-setters — Pettersen, Troy Larson and Justin Gominsky — are tasked with getting on base in front of power hitter O’Shea. Pettersen has been as steady as they come this season, recording hits in 30-of-33 games, and the other two members of the trio have shown signs of emerging offensively.
But when O’Shea has come to the plate this season with first base empty, he’s often been fed a steady diet of off-speed pitches or intentional walks to reach Minnesota’s fifth hitter, a considerably less potent offensive threat.
That’s why Puhl’s emergence could be a huge boost to the Gophers. He can protect O’Shea in the lineup by forcing teams to think twice before pitching around the power hitter.
“I’vestruggled this year so far but last year I hit behind O’Shea all year long. So I think getting back into that five-hole and behind O’Shea, I can turn things around here for the end of the season,” Puhl said. “I feel comfortable in the five-hole. I feel like I can hit the balls in the gaps.”
He’s been hampered by several dings and dents this season, including a knee injury that has slowed him a few steps defensively. He said there are a few balls he hasn’t been able to get to this year that he feels he should have and added that he likely won’t be 100 percent at any point this season.
Anderson contends that Puhl’s bat will help O’Shea see better pitching as opposed to teams nibbling around the corners in his pivotal at-bats.
“He’s had better at-bats lately,” Anderson said. “[It] looks like we found a spot for him to leave him there behind Nick to protect him.
“He’s hit pretty good in [conference play] and it looks like I can leave him there. Maybe it will help Nick some and get him a few more pitches to hit.”
Studies conducted in Major League Baseball suggest lineup protection is statistically irrelevant, but in the college game it may have more merit.
Puhl concedes he has struggled with the bat this year, but his numbers last season assert he is better than his performance so far suggests.
He was third on the team with a .335 batting average a season ago and had 18 doubles. According to Pettersen, Puhl’s hitting vastly improved down the stretch.
Puhl has just one home run this year — a wind-aided blast in Brookings, S.D., on April 27. In fact, closer Scott Matyas made a bet with Puhl in February that Puhl couldn’t shave his beard until he went deep in a game. It took until the 30th game of the season, but Puhl finally shaved last week.
Sporting just scruff over the weekend, Puhl said he hoped the slightly cleaner-shaven version of himself can deliver the offensive numbers from a season ago.
A recent change in approach may help. Puhl said the coaching staff grew tired of the lack of production and overhauled Minnesota’s offensive approach several weeks ago.
Hitters are now being instructed to be more patient; not on an aggregate level, as some hitters in the lineup are still not seeing very many pitches per at-bat, but rather on a micro level.
Puhl said the coaches are working with hitters to wait longer on the ball coming in to see it as deep into the hitting zone as possible. He said they stress keeping one’s hands inside the plane of the ball and, if the pitch is outside, to hit it to the opposite field rather than trying to pull it.
The opposite field approach may help to offset one of the team’s biggest enemies — pitchers who change speeds and own the corners of the strike zone.
The Gophers will get a chance to trot out the new-look lineup and further tweak the bottom portion Tuesday against North Dakota State in Fargo, N.D.