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 âÄî or, less likely, coincidentally âÄî 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 GophersâÄô offense.
Anderson experimented with the lineup a bit more than usual in the teamâÄôs most recent series with Iowa last weekend at Target Field. To shake things up, he inserted the teamâÄôs 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 teamâÄôs most capable power threat and clean-up hitter, Nick OâÄôShea.
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 âÄî Pettersen, Troy Larson and Justin Gominsky âÄî are tasked with getting on base in front of power hitter OâÄôShea. 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 OâÄôShea has come to the plate this season with first base empty, heâÄôs often been fed a steady diet of off-speed pitches or intentional walks to reach MinnesotaâÄôs fifth hitter, a considerably less potent offensive threat.
ThatâÄôs why PuhlâÄôs emergence could be a huge boost to the Gophers. He can protect OâÄôShea in the lineup by forcing teams to think twice before pitching around the power hitter.
âÄúIâÄôvestruggled this year so far but last year I hit behind OâÄôShea all year long. So I think getting back into that five-hole and behind OâÄôShea, I can turn things around here for the end of the season,âÄù Puhl said. âÄúI feel comfortable in the five-hole. I feel like I can hit the balls in the gaps.âÄù
HeâÄôs 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 hasnâÄôt been able to get to this year that he feels he should have and added that he likely wonâÄôt be 100 percent at any point this season.
Anderson contends that PuhlâÄôs bat will help OâÄôShea see better pitching as opposed to teams nibbling around the corners in his pivotal at-bats.
âÄúHeâÄôs had better at-bats lately,âÄù Anderson said. âÄú[It] looks like we found a spot for him to leave him there behind Nick to protect him.
âÄúHeâÄôs 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.âÄù
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, PuhlâÄôs hitting vastly improved down the stretch.
Puhl has just one home run this year âÄî 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 couldnâÄôt 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 MinnesotaâÄôs 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 oneâÄôs 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 teamâÄôs biggest enemies âÄî 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.