Ask Gophers starting pitcher Phil Isaksson about his stuff, and he’ll tell you it’s nothing special.
At 6 feet tall, the unimposing senior carries himself with a laid-back demeanor and self-deprecating sense of humor, but don’t mistake his humility for a lack of confidence.
He boasts the lowest ERA (3.14) of any of the Gophers’ three primary starters.
“I give a lot of credit to [the Gophers’ coaching staff] for having trust in me … because I’ve got certainly below-average stuff for a lot of college pitchers,” Isaksson said Thursday after a 5-1 loss to Ohio State in the second game of a doubleheader at Target Field.
After the Gophers clinched a Big Ten Tournament berth in the day’s first game with a 3-2 walk-off victory, Isaksson took the mound for the nightcap, his last-ever home start for the team. He pitched four scoreless innings before giving up a two-run triple — on a fly ball misjudged by center fielder Justin Gominsky — and a sacrifice grounder in the fifth to give him three earned runs and ultimately, the loss.
It’s been that kind of year for Isaksson.
As Gophers pitching coach Todd Oakes noted, despite having the lowest ERA among Minnesota’s starters, Isaksson’s win-loss record is just 3-5 on the season. “That tells you one thing,” Oakes said, “that he hasn’t been getting a lot of run support.”
While his record may not always reflect it, Isaksson historically has put the Gophers in position to win games, particularly important games against tough opponents.
In 18 appearances last year, Isaksson went 6-2 with a 3.72 ERA in a season which culminated in a five-hit, five-strikeout victory over Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament Championship.
The fifth-seeded Gophers will again need to rely on Isaksson’s arm in this year’s tournament, particularly in light of their spotty offense, if they want to defend their title.
With the tournament starting on Wednesday, and assuming Todd Oakes’ son TJ gets the start in the opening game against the fourth-seeded Buckeyes, Isaksson will have had a full week’s rest between starts, which will be crucial as he is known to recover slowly.
“Phil’s got the body of a 45-year-old,” joked the elder Oakes. “You’ve got to get him whirlpools and ice and massages … I don’t know what else, if he burns incense at home or what the deal is.”
All kidding aside, Isaksson has been vital to the team’s success over the last two seasons.
Like this year, Isaksson’s win-loss record in 2010 belied an even stronger season performance. Appearing out of the bullpen during the regular season, he pitched four scoreless innings against then- No. 11 Louisville on Feb. 28 in a game the Gophers ultimately lost.
Similarly, in a game Isaksson started against then-No. 21 Alabama on March 17, he gave up just three hits and two runs in 5 2/3 innings but took a no-decision after the bullpen gave up seven runs in a 9-4 defeat.
That his ERA and opponents’ batting average have stayed so low throughout the past two seasons, especially against such power-heavy lineups, is all the more impressive given that Isaksson — who uses a fastball, changeup and curveball — is not a strikeout pitcher.
Asked what younger Gophers pitchers like up-and-coming southpaw reliever Tom Windle have learned from Isaksson, head coach John Anderson said, “I think [Isaksson] has taught people that it’s not just about velocity, it’s about mixing three pitches and locating three pitches … He pitches with no fear and I think young kids need to see that.”
A lack of fear is essential for pitchers who rely on contact, as Isaksson demonstrated early against the Buckeyes. After loading the bases with one out in the first inning, Isaksson looked to be in trouble but averted catastrophe by getting Buckeyes infielder Matt Streng to hit into a double play.
Isaksson said he has learned how to stay calm and use his off-speed pitches to work out of such predicaments, and to not view them as pressure situations. That mindset will likely come in handy during the tournament.
On the mound Iskasson has a knack for throwing the right pitch at the right time, and despite being visibly disappointed over Thursday’s loss while talking to media after the game, he slipped in a couple of wry jokes just as impeccably.
Asked for his take on the early success of Windle, who is 6-2 with a 1.93 ERA, Isaksson quipped, “I’m just glad he hasn’t taken my job yet.”