Alec Crawford has his gear packed for a business trip this weekend.
“It’s going to be great to have a chance to pitch close to home, but my focus has to be on doing what I can to help my team," said Crawford, a former Wilton prep who is expected to start for Minnesota on the mound when it opens a Big Ten series at Iowa at 6 p.m. Friday.
The 6-foot-2 right-hander is off to a 3-1 start for the Golden Gophers in his senior season, getting the ball for the opening of game of each conference series Minnesota has played this season.
Crawford is working to make the most of his final collegiate season.
He ranks sixth in the Big Ten with 40 strikeouts in 55.1 innings and only two pitchers in the conference have caught more batters looking at a called third strike than Crawford has this season.
“I’m feeling as comfortable on the mound right now as I have in a long time," Crawford said. “My fastball, change, curve and slider have all been effective and I have good confidence in all of them."
Mostly, he is working to make the most of what has turned out to be his only full season in a Minnesota uniform.
“I’m having fun right now, working hard and I’m committed to making this the best year it can be for me," Crawford said. “I have no idea where things will lead after this year, so I live for the moment and do what I can to make every chance I get when I put on a Minnesota uniform the best it can be."
A four-sport athlete who earned all-state recognition in baseball and basketball at Wilton, Crawford understands that now more than ever.
After playing in the National Junior College Athletic Association World Series twice for Des Moines Area Community College, experience Crawford said provided him with a chance to grow physically and mentally, he took his skill to Minnesota a year ago only to have the start of his junior season delayed before it even started.
Soreness in a knee led to an MRI which discovered a bone chip in his patellar tendon that required arthroscopic surgery that kept him off the mound for the first half of the 2013 season.
“I had never dealt with an injury like that and I struggled with it a bit, but it has helped me put things in perspective,’’ Crawford said. “I don’t take anything for granted anymore and that approach is helping me compete now.’’
Crawford finished 4-2 with a 2.28 ERA in nine starts for Minnesota last season and earned a victory over Illinois in his final start of the year in the Big Ten tourney.
In the offseason, he worked to regain the strength needed to become a workhorse in the Golden Gophers’ rotation.
His 7.1-inning start in a series-opening win at Michigan two weeks ago was the longest of Crawford’s career.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the past year with the training staff and then with the strength and conditioning staff and they did a great job of getting me back to where I need to be," Crawford said. “I feel as strong as I’ve felt in a long time and I feel like I’m accomplishing a lot."
Crawford’s current focus is working on continued development of each of his pitches and becoming a more complete pitcher while putting Minnesota in a position to win.
The Golden Gophers enter this weekend’s series with the Hawkeyes sharing the seventh spot in the Big Ten standings with Iowa. Both teams are 5-7 in conference play.
“This is my one chance to pitch close enough to home where I’m sure there will be a lot of familiar faces in the stands and I’m excited about that," Crawford said. “Iowa’s a good team and we’ll need to play well and play hard, just like I’m sure they will. It will be another good test for us."