By Tom Blodgett
It’s been nearly 10 months since the snub heard round the softball world. But if you’re looking for the 2018 Minnesota Golden Gophers to put things right for the 2017 team, which finished its regular season ranked No. 1 in the nation but unseeded for the NCAA tournament, you will be waiting in vain.
We are not even talking about the results here, which the Golden Gophers admit have been less than their usual standard of excellence. Minnesota is 14-10, despite a 5-0 start to the season at the UNLV SportCo Kickoff Classic.
But the 31-game road trip that Minnesota is starting its season on was never meant to be the Golden Gophers’ Redemption Tour.
“It’s not last year, and we lost an All-American pitcher (Sara Groenewegen),” said Minnesota coach Jamie Trachsel, who was hired from Iowa State last summer.
“Sometimes you have a perfect storm, and they had a phenomenal season last year and no one’s ever going to take that away. I mean, they had a great season. And it’s hard to follow that up sometimes, regardless of who’s here.”
Who’s here is most of the regular lineup from that 2017 team that went 56-5 but lost 1-0 twice to Alabama in the Tuscaloosa Regional. That includes big bats like Kendyl Lindaman, MaKenna Partain, Sydney Dwyer and Danielle Parlich.
In all, seven starters are back, though one, senior outfielder Dani Wagner, has been shelved for now by a hand injury.
But the big bats have been awfully quiet to start the season. After being swept at No. 14 Arizona State over the weekend, the Golden Gophers’ team batting average stands at .240, ranking 208th in the nation.
Excluding the injured Wagner, all the returning regulars’ numbers are down from a little to a lot. Parlich and junior shortstop Allie Arneson are below the Mendoza line. The leading hitter is a freshman, center fielder Ellee Jensen, who sits at .373.
It hasn’t been all bad all the time. The past weekend was a picture of the inconsistency that has plagued Minnesota.
On Friday, the Gophers opened their series against Arizona State, and G Juarez dominated the 6-0 game, allowing just two hits and a walk while striking out 13 in a complete-game shutout.
Minnesota took a break from the series Saturday to move from suburban Tempe to Phoenix and beat Georgetown 8-0 and host Grand Canyon 10-2. In the latter game, the Gophers scored nine runs in the seventh inning to claim the win.
But moving back to Tempe on Sunday for a doubleheader put Minnesota’s bats on ice again. The Golden Gophers broke a 32-inning shutout streak from Arizona State pitchers, but it came only when Sun Devils center fielder Morgan Howe lost what should have been an inning-ending fly ball in the sun. Ultimately, it wasn’t nearly enough in a 9-1 loss.
Then came Juarez again. She didn’t mow down Minnesota in the same fashion as Friday night – she recorded only five strikeouts – but getting bat on ball wasn’t enough.
Juarez held the Golden Gophers to a single hit, and it was immediately erased when Dwyer tried to stretch her single to a double, but Howe’s perfect peg from the wall nailed her at second base. Juarez faced the minimum number of batters in the 4-0 win.
“You have to (get) consistency in every area, and we’re working on that,” Trachsel said. “We see glimpses of it. That’s why we have wins. We have some great innings, and then maybe we have a couple innings get away from us.”
Dwyer, for one, said she thinks the at-bats got better from Friday to Sunday against Juarez, even without the hits to show for it. The senior first baseman said the team just needs to be more aggressive at the plate.
Parlich, a senior third baseman, said she has faith things will come eventually.
“I keep hitting the ball right at people,” she said. “That’s what (for) a lot of this team keeps happening. We’ve been having a lot of great at-bats up and down the lineup, no matter what position anyone is in. They just happen to keep going at people, unfortunately. And I think once we can break past that, I think it’s going to start rolling. We just need to get there.”
So perhaps the Golden Gophers’ offense is just a ticking time bomb, waiting to go off on some unsuspecting team at any given moment. ASU coach Trish Ford might endorse that theory.
“I know they have the ability to do that, and I think we all know that,” Ford said. “When you’re asking for scouting reports before they came in, every scouting report said, ‘they have all the tools, they have all the tools, they have all the tools, and it’s going to come.’ And you know it. You just don’t want to be that team that’s facing them when it does.”
Of course, even when the offense does come around, Groenewegen isn’t anchoring Minnesota in the circle anymore. But Amber Fiser, who went 14-0 with a 1.68 ERA as a freshman last season, is showing she can step up.
ASU assistant coach Katie Richardson, a recent Golden Gophers standout who called facing her alma mater bittersweet, said Fiser will take Minnesota a long way.
Indeed, maybe the biggest show of improvement from Friday to Sunday came from Fiser, who is 9-5 with a 2.31 ERA and 92 strikeouts in 91 innings pitched this season. On Friday, the Sun Devils knocked her out in the third inning after giving up five runs.
But Sunday, Fiser was lights out. She didn’t give up a hit until two outs in the third inning and was charged with just one earned run on the day, striking out a career-high 11 batters. Some of those came on swings that made Sun Devils hitters look silly, especially early in the game.
Fiser, who throws a fastball, curve, rise and changeup, said she was hitting her spots better, but also was better about changing planes with her pitches and inching out from the plate with each pitch.
Experience, then, is critical for her.
“This (Arizona State) is probably one of the top teams I’ve ever pitched against in my career,” she said. “Another one was Florida State earlier this year. But this is definitely a team that had really good bats, and they were very aggressive, so it’s not something I’m used to.”
Sunday’s loss was the second time this season Fiser has recorded double-digit strikeouts in a loss. That points to another problem on the mend for Minnesota: defense.
On Friday, Partain, a sophomore second baseman, fielded a ball and tagged Howe on her way to second and had time to throw out batter Nichole Chilson at first base. Only problem: she lost the ball on the tag. Howe ended up at third base.
The next batter, Danielle Gibson, put a Fiser pitch beyond the wall in left-center. What could have been an inning-ender helped turn a two-run deficit into five runs and ended Fiser’s night. Trachsel called the moment a “killer.”
On Sunday, a blown bunt coverage, an error on a stolen-base attempt and another error on a rundown between third base and home cost Minnesota three unearned runs and gave ASU the breathing room it needed for Juarez against Fiser.
Parlich said the team is working on the little things like this in every practice and that it’s slowly falling into place.
In any case, one would expect Trachsel, who came to Minnesota with a reputation for building strong defense in her teams, to fix it as she goes on.
“I think I knew we’d be tested more defensively this year,” she said. “Sara graduated. We have a new young pitching staff, and we told them to be prepared to make 15 to 18 outs a game, and we’re having to. I think we’re seeing some great plays. My whole thing is making 100 percent of the routine plays.”
One thing that doesn’t seem to be in play much is the coaching change from Jessica Allister, who left Minnesota for her alma mater, Stanford, after last season, to Trachsel.
Though Trachsel said the transition to a new coaching staff can be part of the problem as things are put in place, Parlich said the team highly respects Trachsel.
And Lindaman, a sophomore catcher who still is showing pop in her bat this year, doubled down from there.
“We struggled a little bit on defense last year, and she was exactly what we needed,” Lindaman said. “She just brings a whole new aspect of the game, and I think that’s great for us, just having two different coaching styles to learn from.”
Trachsel acknowledges her team is pressing because they have pride and know they’re not playing the way they are capable of playing.
But panic has not set in.
“I think there’s more people out there who think the sky is falling than we do,” she said.
Trachsel said she sees improvement daily from her team in their at bats and making those routine plays. And that could be bad news for opponents down the road.
“They just got to stay the course and trust what they know because it’s not going to solve itself,” she said. “And, we’re going to keep getting 1 percent better each and every day. And I assure you that this team will be someone to reckon with come down the stretch here.”
If so, it will be because the Golden Gophers have made 2018 its own season and this team its own team, rather than some extension of 2017.
“The past is the past,” Trachsel said. “It doesn’t matter who was on this field. And so this team has their own journey. This team has their own story. And this team has their own championships that they get to chase. We’re still en route of that.”