When Gophers senior Andy Henkemeyer lined a walk-off, run-scoring single to defeat Illinois 3-2 on Wednesday in the Big Ten baseball tournament opener at Target Field, the Sauk Rapids, Minn., native understood the moment’s importance.
Henkemeyer was a freshman in 2010, the last time Minnesota won the double-elimination conference tournament. The Gophers edged Indiana in that year’s first round and waltzed to the title undefeated.
In 2011, the Gophers squandered a late-inning, first-round lead against Ohio State and fell into the losers’ bracket. At that point, they needed six consecutive victories to claim another title. They won three games before finally succumbing. Last year, Minnesota failed to qualify for the six-team tournament. So when Henkemeyer came up in the ninth inning, he knew the stakes.
The score was tied 2-2, with one out and the bases loaded. Illinois had stranded 13 runners over the first seven innings, giving the Gophers a chance to steal one, and that’s what they did.
Henkemeyer pulled Ronnie Muck’s pitch to right field, touched first base, then ran to celebrate with his teammates in the infield.
“It’s huge,” Henkemyer said. “My sophomore year, we lost the first one to Ohio State and had to come back through, and I think we got third [place], so it’s tough.”
The fourth-seeded Gophers will play top-seeded Indiana at 7:05 p.m.. The fifth-seeded Fighting Illini, who will meet Michigan in the losers’ bracket, had to be upset after squandering so many chances. They left the bases loaded three times.
Gophers starter Tom Windle labored through five innings, throwing 108 pitches and issuing a season-high six walks, but he limited the damage to two runs in the second inning.
Matt Halloran’s RBI single off Illinois starter Kevin Duchene trimmed the lead to 2-1 in the bottom of the second, and Henkemeyer’s two-out RBI single made it 2-2 in the fifth.
After the tying run scored, replays appeared to show Illinois catcher Jason Goldstein tagging Troy Larson before he could touch home plate.
“We still had many opportunities,” Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. “That should not have affected us.”
Henkemeyer finished 3-for-4, raising his batting average to .316. In the 2010 Big Ten tournament, he went 5-for-11 with three doubles, so this is familiar territory.
“For me to be successful, I like to get on the pitch early,” Henkemeyer said. “I try to attack the ball, and if it’s a strike, go after the first one.”
Gophers sophomore Ben Meyer (5-4) was just as aggressive on the mound, relieving Windle with four scoreless and walkless innings for the victory. Meyer opened the season in the starting rotation when Alec Crawford and DJ Snelten were injured, twice earning Big Ten pitcher of the week honors, then moved to the bullpen when those two got healthy.
Windle, a probable top-50 draft pick in next month’s major league draft, likely won’t pitch again in this tournament, but Gophers coach John Anderson said Meyer could be ready by Saturday.
“I’m sure if this thing gets deeper, we can probably use him again,” Anderson said. “He recovers pretty good. It does help that we only used two [pitchers] today and found a way to win a ballgame.”
Anderson said he’ll use Snelten to start Thursday’s game. Windle and Snelten, Minnesota’s top two lefthanders, were both first-team All-Big Ten selections.
Nebraska 11, Michigan 2: Kyle Kubat carried a no-hit bid for 6 ⅓ innings and Austin Darby had four RBI, and Chad Christensen scored four runs, as the Cornhuskers routed the Wolverines in Wednesday’s other game. The victory avenged Nebraska’s 19-9 loss to Michigan in Saturday’s regular-season finale.