Gophers Walk Tightrope At Big Ten Tourney Opener

MINNEAPOLIS—Pitching coach Todd Oakes, wearing a mask in the dugout to protect him from dust, is a constant reminder to Minnesota’s players about the value of perseverance and belief. If Oakes could fight his way back from acute myeloid leukemia and rejoin the Golden Gophers this spring, then why can’t the Gophers fight their way through the Big Ten tournament and into a regional?

The Gophers displayed plenty of toughness in Wednesday’s Big Ten opener, escaping three bases-loaded jams in a 3-2, walk-off win against Illinois.

“We found a way,” Minnesota coach John Anderson said. “One of our mottos—which came from coach Oakes, who was diagnosed with leukemia—was, ‘Never give up, never give in.’ Tommy Windle found his way out of a bunch of jams, stranded a bunch of runners, gave us a chance to hang in there to the last inning. We’re a team that has to grind it out, pitch and play defense and find a way.”

Tom Windle

Tom Windle

Windle, Minnesota’s ace lefthander and one of the best prospects in the Big Ten, did not have his best stuff or command Wednesday, walking six and throwing 108 pitches over five inefficient innings. But he allowed just two runs on six hits, thanks in part of five well-timed strikeouts. Windle looked good early, working at 89-91 with a good 80-82 slider in the first, but his velocity dropped to 85-88 in the second, his slider flattened out, and he struggled to find his feel for his changeup.

But he competed hard, stranding the bases loaded in the second and fifth. Overall, he stranded nine runners in five innings.

“He didn’t have fastball command,” Anderson said. “His outings probably haven’t been as clean the last few weeks; I think he doesn’t have the same fastball command. Sometimes he doesn’t get out front, stands up in his delivery a little bit, and you saw that again today. I feel for the young man because he’s under such scrutiny every time he steps on the mound, and I think that wears on you mentally and emotionally. During the season, every time he goes in the bullpen before a game, there are 30 scouts hanging over the fence, and there are 30 radar guns pointing at you. And I think it wears on you.

“He didn’t have great stuff today, he got behind in the count, he walked people. But great competitors and great pitches find a way to get you out on those days, and he did today. I think that’s a real compliment to him that he found a way to hang in there and keep us in the game. If he doesn’t, we probably don’t have a chance at the end.”

The Illini kept the pressure on Michigan for the first seven innings, working counts, drawing walks and hitting balls hard. But they couldn’t come up with big hits at opportune moments and wound up leaving 13 men on base in the game. The Gophers deserve credit for making big pitches and playing excellent defense, but Illinois deserves some of the blame, too.

“From an offensive standpoint, we did a great job getting runners on base; I thought we were patient at the plate,” Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. “Then when we got multiple opportunities with runners in scoring position, we did not have very good at-bats. I thought there were a lot of times we had advantage counts and didn’t take good swings, got jammed a couple times in advantage counts.”

Righthander Ben Meyer followed Windle by throwing four scoreless innings of relief, allowing just two hits and no walks while striking out four. He set down the Illini in order in three of the final four frames, helping to swing the momentum back to Minnesota’s dugout.

The Gophers capitalized in the ninth, as Matt Halloran doubled to lead off the frame. Minnesota loaded the bases with no outs, and scored the winning run on Andy Henkemeyer’s RBI single to right field on a first-pitch cutter from Ronnie Muck. Henkemeyer finished 3-for-5 with a walk, delivering the game-tying RBI single in the fifth in addition to the game-winner in the ninth.

“For me to be successful, I like to get on the pitch early, try to attack the ball, and if it’s a strike, go after the first one,” Henkemeyer said. “The last at-bat (in the seventh) where I struck out, I didn’t do that, and he rung me up on a 3-2 pitch. So (in the ninth), I just wanted to go after the cutter early, and I got one.”

It was a competitive one-run game, and it won’t be the last of those we see in Minneapolis this week.

“I think the game was very indicative of the league and the competition, how even it was this year,” Anderson said. “I think you’re going to see games like that in this tournament. It’s very even.”

“I think this is the best the conference has ever been,” Hartleb said, “and I think we’re as good as any team in the conference. And we will respond.”

But it won’t be easy for Illinois to run through the losers’ bracket, especially now that ace freshman Kevin Duchene has already been used. Minnesota, meanwhile, is in great shape, with lefthander D.J. Snelton (whom Anderson said has pitched very well of late) slated to take the mound Thursday.