Gophers baseball eager to forget last year’s 6-31 finish

After each of his first two seasons with the Gophers baseball team was cut short, Sam Ireland has a simple goal for this year.

“To be available,” said Ireland, who is expected to be one of the Gophers’ primary starting pitchers. “To go out regularly every week and don’t miss a start.”

Ireland, a junior righthander from Highlands Ranch, Colo., will start toward that goal on Friday when the Gophers open their season with a four-game series against Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton, Fla.

Ireland’s freshman year ended early when the Gophers season was canceled after 18 games because of COVID-19. Last season, he was sidelined by a triceps injury after seven starts and 37⅓ innings pitched. Ireland recovered to pitch in the Northwoods League with Fond du Lac.

Coming off the Gophers’ 6-31 season and last-place finish in the Big Ten, Ireland is optimistic about this season.

“We’re all trying to forget about last year,” said Ireland, “but we want to learn from it. This fall [practice] helped us build relationships and culture.”

John Anderson, who is in his 41st season as the Gophers coach, has a revamped roster that features 14 newcomers — nine freshmen and five transfers. Of the 37 players on the roster, 20 are pitchers.

“Last season was a challenge in many ways and we didn’t perform on the field,” Anderson said. “Since the start of practice in the fall, the guys have gotten after it and stepped up. They’ve put the work in. This group is fun to work with. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to play in Florida.”

One of the seven returning starting position players is first baseman Ronnie Sweeny. The senior from Woodbury led the Gophers with nine home runs and 30 RBI last season.

“This team has done a lot of work,” Sweeny said. “From Day One, we’ve been building relationships. Spent time in the weight room. Probably the biggest thing is how much work the freshmen have put in and transformed their bodies.”

Sweeny, who ranked in the top 10 in the Northwoods League (with La Crosse) last summer in home runs, RBI, walks and doubles, said he doesn’t set numerical goals and just “wants to help the team win in whatever role Coach wants for me.”

Also returning are outfielder Easton Bertrand, who hit .295 last season, and catcher Chase Stanke, who hit .272 in 35 starts.

Second baseman Zach Raabe, who led the team with a .315 average last season, signed with the Milwaukee Brewers after being selected in the eighth round of the major league amateur draft.

After the season-opening 10-day trip to Florida, the Gophers will return home to play to play nine consecutive games at US Bank Stadium. They will open Big Ten play on April 1 at Rutgers.

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