Ben Mezzenga scooped up the baseball in left field and fired it toward home. The strengths of two teams were about to go head to head.
On one side was Purdue, a push-the-envelope group among the nation’s boldest on the basepaths. Pinch runner Charlie Nasuti was motoring around third and speeding for home with his team trailing by one run in the eighth inning. Then there was Mezzenga and Minnesota, known for limiting mistakes in a sport full of them while rolling to a Big Ten regular-season title.
The outfielder’s throw came in on a line, and catcher Eli Wilson made the tag in a cloud of dust. Out. A celebration ensued a short time later as the top-seeded Golden Gophers topped second-seeded Purdue 6-4 to claim the league tournament crown at a sweltering TD Ameritrade Park on Sunday afternoon.
“(The game) was very indicative of the league we’re in,” 37th-year Minnesota coach John Anderson said. “Very strong league, very difficult league, lots of good players in this league, lots of good coaches in this league. I think that game was representative of the quality of baseball that’s played weekend out and weekend in all year long. I’ve been in the league a long time, obviously, and this league right now is very, very strong.”
Minnesota (41-13) became the first team to sweep both Big Ten titles since Indiana in 2014. Its 10 tournament victories are the most in league history since the event began in a four-team, double-elimination format in 1981.
The NCAA announced later Sunday that the Gophers were one of 16 regional hosts.
“Hosting a regional is awesome,” said sophomore outfielder Jordan Kozicky, who was named the tournament’s most outstanding player. “Nothing that I would have thought would have happened here because we always play with a chip on our shoulder as a northern school. But we’re pumped, we’re excited and we’ve still got business to take care of. It’s just one step along the way.”
Purdue (37-19) was already assured of playing in the NCAA tournament for just the third time in program history and first since 2012. The Sunday tilt was a far cry from a pair of games the teams played in mid-April, when the Gophers dominated by a combined 40-15 score.
Other Big Ten teams expecting to have their names called during the NCAA selection show Monday morning are Indiana, Ohio State and Illinois, all of which held RPIs in the top 47 entering Sunday. The conference tied its record last year by sending five teams to the tournament.
But second-year coach Mark Wasikowski said the Boilermakers are more angry than happy to continue their season. The play at home plate was one of a handful of outs his team ran into on the bases, and there were chances for a bigger redemption story from a squad that had gone 89-176 the previous five seasons since seizing its only Big Ten tourney title in 2012.
“The run ain’t over yet,” Purdue outfielder Skyler Hunter said. “We got a regional coming up and the run has just begun. (This) loss put a little bit of fire in our eyes. We’re going to play with an even bigger chip on our shoulder now and we’re going to show the nation that the Purdue Boilermakers, we can play baseball.”
Minnesota took the lead in the sixth inning when Luke Pettersen lined a single to center with a runner at third and two outs and later came in on Mezzenga’s chopper that bounced over the head of reliever Trevor Cheaney and leaked into the outfield to put the Gophers in front 5-4.
Terrin Vavra extended the Gopher lead to 6-4 in bottom of the eighth with an RBI double after Mezzenga preserved the lead in the top half on his play at the plate.
“He made a great throw,” Minnesota reliever Max Meyer said. “That was a great play by him in a big situation. So I was really thankful. It was an awesome play to have.”