In the early goings of the 2020 season, head coach John Anderson had high praise for the Gophers' pitching staff, calling it potentially the deepest staff from top to bottom he has had at Minnesota.
That's quite high praise considering Anderson has been the Gophers head coach dating back to 1981. But a sluggish start that did not mirror Anderson's expectations made him walk back those comments in late February.
"It hasn't performed very well to this point in time. I didn't see that coming based on what I witnessed in the fall and winter practice," he said. "We saw an entirely different pitching staff than what we've seen so far. We got to take a look at that and try to get that group back to where I think they are capable of performing."
While the Gophers managed to stay afloat with some solid play at the plate, the struggles on the mound cost the team some wins. In their eight wins, the Gophers' staff allowed an average of four runs per game. But in their 10 losses, the pitching struggled mightily, giving up an average of 9.6 runs. To top it off, Anderson said one of their biggest problems was not throwing strikes, as the Gophers threw 125 walks — the most in the Big Ten by far.
Despite the struggles, the Gophers had little reason to panic and continued to remain optimistic that the staff's production would change sooner rather than later. The staff as a whole was not performing well, but the Gophers had strong individual performances from juniors Max Meyer and Bubba Horton as well as sophomore J.P. Massey. Meyer was tied for fifth-most strikeouts in the country, Massey was having a breakout season and Horton had a few quality outings out of the bullpen. The team believed the rest of the staff would soon follow suit.
"I have no doubt in my mind the pitching staff is going to be great this year," sophomore infielder Zack Raabe said in February. "Their stuff is great. They just have to have the confidence that we have in them to go out there and throw strikes and once they have that I have no doubt that they are going to play really well."
Anderson has found it typically takes teams between 15 and 20 games to evaluate and adjust to the season. On top of that, he thought the Gophers would see different results once they started playing more games outdoors, as 14 of the first 18 games were held inside U.S. Bank Stadium.
So it made sense that the pitching staff looked like they were ready to turn the corner when they played Creighton two weeks ago for the 17th and 18th games of the season and the final ones to be played indoors. The Gophers won both games led by quality starts from freshman Trent Schoeberl and redshirt junior Nolan Burchill and the staff started to find the strike zone, throwing 21 strikeouts compared to 12 walks in the series.
The caveat, however, was that at the time no one knew these would be the last two games of the season. Now with a season cut short, the Gophers are left with some unanswered questions. Was the pitching staff really beginning to make improvements, or was it going to continue to be the team's Achilles' heel in 2020? How will this shortened season impact the development of some of the younger pitchers?
The most pressing question currently is if Meyer will return to Minnesota for his senior season or if he will enter the MLB Draft. Meyer has not made his decision yet but is expected to decide within the coming weeks. If he leaves, Massey is a possible candidate to be the team's ace next year.
Minnesota could also see some missing pieces return to add more pitching depth, as Josh Culliver suffered a season-ending injury early this season.
But for now, the Gophers are left wondering what could have been and how it will affect them — if at all — in 2021.