John Anderson has a theory that pitchers from Minnesota don’t fully bloom until they’re 25 or 26. He saw it happen with Twins pitchers Glen Perkins and Cole De Vries, after they pitched for Anderson with the Gophers, and he expects the same for Tom Windle.
That’s saying something for the junior lefthander. He’s pretty advanced already.
The 21-year-old tossed a no-hitter in March and rattled off four consecutive complete games, becoming a probable top-50 pick in June’s major league draft.
Windle has been less dominant of late, having been thrown for a loop by the weather and the death of a close friend in a drowning accident. But the Gophers confidently will start the first-team All-Big Ten pick at noon Wednesday against Illinois in the conference tournament opener at Target Field.
“He’s gotten better each day he’s been in the program,” Anderson said. “And I think his best pitching days are still out there a ways.”
Windle and his twin brother, Sam, were hockey and baseball standouts at Osseo High School. They were born to Craig and Susan Windle eight weeks premature in 1992, weighing less than 5 pounds apiece. Neither parent stands taller than 5-7, but their two boys grew to be 6-4.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Craig said.
Sam plays hockey at Bemidji State. Tom knew baseball was his ticket, even though one of his hockey highlights was a six-goal varsity game. When they were first-year hockey bantams, Sam made the A-team but Tom missed the cut, settling for a spot on the B1-team. Craig Windle saw that as a defining moment for Tom, who hasn’t stopped pushing himself since.
“At the time, it was probably the most devastating thing in the world,” Tom Windle said. “And I’m sure something clicked and made me change a little bit and move forward.”
Sam was a righthanded pitcher with decent talent, but Tom stood out to Minnesota’s coaching staff as a lefthander.
The White Sox made Windle a 28th-round pick out of high school, but he opted to join the Gophers. He pitched primarily out of the bullpen his first two years at Minnesota, making a big impact at the 2011 Big Ten tournament.
The Gophers lost their first game that year, falling into the loser’s bracket — where they won two games in one day. Windle saved the first one against Ohio State and won the second one with five scoreless innings against Purdue.
Last year the Gophers tried making Windle a starter, but a shoulder injury limited his workload. He went to the Cape Cod League, where top college players often play summer ball, and posted a 2.34 ERA as a starter.
That success carried over to this season. Windle is 6-4 with a 2.05 ERA. His March 8 no-hitter against Western Illinois was the Gophers’ first nine-inning no-no since 1931. He followed that with three more complete games.
“The impressive thing about that stretch was that he was on a pitch count on all of those and still got it done,” Gophers pitching coach Todd Oakes said. “I think he’s learned how to get hitters out with [fewer] pitches.”
The weather halted Windle’s complete-game streak. He had a two-hit shutout going through five innings against Ohio State, in the Siebert Field opener, before the game was suspended by snow.
Two weeks later, weather wiped out an entire weekend home series against Michigan State, giving Windle 13 days between starts.
He gave up six runs on April 26 at Iowa. The next day, Sam called with terrible news: Andrew Pitts, one of their closest childhood friends, had fallen through the ice on a pond in Maple Grove and drowned.
Windle said Pitts was “the type of kid that would always call or text me with congratulations after a game, like after the no-hitter.”
Windle has visited Pitts’ family twice, including May 12, on what would have been Andrew’s 21st birthday.
“I’ll be thinking about him probably every day for a while,” Windle said. “And I know he’s watching over me.”
After two strong outings against Penn State and Nebraska, Windle wasn’t as sharp in a loss against Illinois last Thursday, giving up four earned runs over six innings. Wednesday, he gets a rematch with the Illini in what could be his final start for the Gophers.
Lefthanders always are in high demand in the draft, and Windle has several impressive tools, including a wipeout slider and a fastball that sits between 90-94 miles per hour. To start in the big leagues, Windle probably will need to master a third pitch. His changeup is a work in progress.
“He’s just starting to understand how to use it,” Anderson said. “I still think it’s going to be a very good pitch for him down the road.”
Baseball America currently ranks Windle as the draft’s 46th-best prospect. Last year’s No. 46 overall pick — pitcher Eddie Butler — received a $1 million signing bonus from the Rockies.
Windle, a sports management major, will have the leverage of being able to return to school for his senior year if he doesn’t like his offer.
“He’s ready to move on to the next level,” Craig Windle said. “But knowing Tom’s makeup, I’d say sometime in the next year-and-a-half, he’ll go back and get his degree.”
First, Windle would like to take the Gophers back to the NCAA tournament. To get there they’ll need an automatic bid, and that means winning the conference tournament.
“The last couple weeks we’ve kind of slowed down,” he said. “We haven’t hit when we’ve pitched well, haven’t pitched when we’ve hit well. We just need to click together again.”