Darin Erstad’s old Los Angeles Angels teams used to summon the Rally Monkey at desperate times like this. Now that he’s Nebraska’s head coach, he knew he needed something more tangible.
The Cornhuskers awoke Friday needing four consecutive victories to win the Big Ten tournament and keep their season alive.
So Erstad decided to save his No. 1 starter, Christian DeLeon, for Saturday, even if that meant using his bullpen to get through Friday’s game. Was it a gamble? Absolutely.
“I was in a position to not start our [No. 1 starter], and not have our closer pitch, and be out of the tournament,” Erstad said. “But at the end of the day, you’ve got to show them a blueprint for how you’re going to win this tournament.”
Erstad knew the Gophers and Illinois had to face each other in Friday’s first game at Target Field, before the winner advanced to play Nebraska. He knew it would be that opponent’s fourth game in three days, leaving the pitching options thin.
Sure enough, the Gophers defeated Illinois 3-1 and then sent freshman Dalton Sawyer to face Nebraska in his first NCAA start.
Sawyer sailed through the first three innings, but he came apart quickly in the fourth inning, when Nebraska scored six runs, capped with a three-run homer from Red Wing native Pat Kelly.
Showing their own resiliency, the Gophers came right back with four runs the next half-inning, including a three-run homer from Matt Halloran. But with bullpen members Ryan Hander and Luke Bublitz combining for eight strong innings, third-seeded Nebraska held on for a 7-4 victory, eliminating Minnesota from the tournament.
Just like Nebraska (27-29), the fourth-seeded Gophers (32-22) knew they had to win the Big Ten tourney or their season would end. They needed the conference’s automatic bid to make the 64-team NCAA field.
Minnesota finished 2-2 in the first Big Ten tournament ever played in a major league ballpark.
“No regrets,” said Gophers coach John Anderson, as his voice cracked with emotion. “Great group of people to coach. Enjoyed every single day. I’m proud of our group. Never gave up, never gave in. And they shouldn’t have to hang their heads walking out of here.”
Now the Gophers must bid goodbye to four seniors from the everyday lineup — Andy Henkemeyer, Troy Larson, Kurt Schlangen and Ryan Abrahamson. Their top two pitchers — Tom Windle and DJ Snelten — are both draft-eligible juniors who could easily bolt for the pros.
Windle and Snelten started the first two games of the tournament, and Anderson said he wouldn’t have used either one again this weekend.
“We’re not going to end someone’s career to win one more game,” Anderson said. “And that’s part of the reason we had to leave Dalton [Sawyer] out there probably a little bit longer than we wanted.”
Sawyer opened the door for Nebraska’s big inning with an errant pickoff throw and never recovered.
“That’s the way Tom Windle and DJ Snelten were when they were young — same thing,” Anderson said. “[Sawyer’s] going to be an outstanding pitcher in this program. He already is. He learned a lot out there today. He’ll be one of our starters next year, and this is an invaluable experience.”
With one more loss, Nebraska will be forced to look ahead to next season, too. The Cornhuskers will face second-seeded Ohio State on Saturday at 3:35 p.m., with the winner advancing to play top-seeded Indiana.