Windle Gives Gophers An Ace

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LOS ANGELES—Growing up in Maple Grove, Minn., Tom Windle and his twin brother Sam were standouts on the hockey rink as well as the baseball diamond. Fraternal competition was a staple of life in the Windle household.

"We had a lot of battles," Tom Windle recalls. "He was a righthanded pitcher and righthanded hockey player, so we were head-to-head in everything."

While Sam wound up playing collegiate hockey at Bemidji State in Minnesota, Tom recognized that despite all the goals he scored as a forward in hockey, his future was brighter on the pitching mound, so he headed to Minnesota to play baseball. The 6-foot-4 lefthander has blossomed into a quality ace atop the Golden Gophers' rotation as a junior, and he ranks as the top prospect in the Big Ten Conference.

Windle thrived in primarily a relief role as a freshman, going 6-2, 1.52 in 41 innings over 19 appearances. He moved into the No. 2 starter role to begin his sophomore year, but after four starts he was sidelined with shoulder tendinitis. He returned to full strength by the end of the season, but he was relegated to a bullpen role, and he threw just 41 innings on the season, going 3-5, 3.27.

"Actually it was an odd thing; I think he was taking some sort of medication for his acne, and they found out it might have created some of the weakness in his shoulder," Minnesota coach John Anderson said. "It was weird. He got off it, and he was fine after that."

Windle spent last summer in the Cape Cod League, where he went 3-2, 2.35 with 47 strikeouts and just seven walks in 38 innings. He ranked as the circuit's No. 11 prospect, and he said the experience helped his confidence soar.

"Facing good hitters every single day (in the Cape), I learned a lot to just throw strikes, and I have the stuff to compete at any level," Windle said.

"He has a chance to be a first-rounder," a National League scouting director said after seeing him in the Cape. "I saw him throw 91-93, flash a plus slider and even a plus changeup. He shows pieces of it, but he's still putting it all together."

Windle spent the fall strength training rather than throwing, and the Gophers are building him up slowly this spring. He was on a 65-pitch limit in his season debut at UCLA, during which he threw four scoreless innings, allowing three hits and two walks while striking out three, helping the Gophers pull off a 6-2 upset. While his fastball reached 94 mph in the Cape League, Windle worked in the 88-91 range against the Bruins, and it played up because of its downward angle. He also showed a plus slider with sharp tilt in the 80-82 range, and an improving changeup.

"I thought he was as advertised," UCLA coach John Savage said afterward. "The breaking ball was good. He made some big pitches to get out of some innings. Certainly you could tell why he's a prospect, and he's only going to get better."

Windle has already gotten markedly better over the course of his Minnesota career, showing plenty of receptiveness to instruction.

"He used to be a longer strider, a little more violent delivery," Anderson said. "He cleaned up his delivery some and is under control a little bit more, and his stuff's better. He pitches down in the zone more than he used to. I think the changeup will come along for him. Tommy's a junior, he's learned how to pitch, he's matured, he's not trying to strike everybody out anymore. He's just trying to get hitters to get themselves out early."

He was more efficient in his second start against Western Michigan, throwing just 78 pitches over 5 2/3 shutout innings. He allowed three hits and two walks in that one while striking out four to pick up his first win of the season. Through two starts, he had a 0.00 ERA and was holding hitters to a .188 average.

Windle has always been able to get hitters out with his quality slider, but Anderson said his fastball command has gotten him in trouble in the past. Now as a junior, he is doing a better job pitching down in the zone with his fastball, and he has been rewarded for it.

And the Gophers are thrilled to have a healthy Windle back in their rotation, especially since their other two weekend starters—D.J. Snelton and Alec Crawford—have started the season on the shelf with injuries. At least Windle can set a positive tone for the weekend on Fridays.

"You've got to have that Friday guy who can give you a chance, because you're always facing another good guy," Anderson said. "He's one of those guys that can match up on Fridays with guys, and give you a chance to get deep into the game.

"He's got good poise—he's always had the poise. He's a pretty laid-back guy, not a guy that's high-strung by any means. He quietly goes about his business, but he's a real focused, confident kid."