Big Ten Tournament Chronicles: Minnesota, Illinois Win Tournament Openers

OMAHA, NE- You simply can’t give the Minnesota offense gifts if you want to pull off an upset. Their lineup is too deep and they’re just too talented for an opposing team to expect to be able to overcome miscues.

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On Wednesday evening, Michigan State had that lesson reinforced in the Gophers’ 3-2 win.

In the first, Minnesota leadoff hitter Luke Pettersen reached base on an error by Michigan State first baseman Zack McGuire. He moved to second on a wild pitch, moved to third on a sacrifice, and then scored on a Terrin Vavra single to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead.

Later, with the game tied 2-2 in the bottom of the fifth, another mistake helped give the Gophers a lead again. Ben Mezzenga led the frame off with a double down the right field line, and two batters later, advanced to third on a wild pitch. The play at third was bang-bang, but whether or not the call was correct, the ball in the dirt allowed Mezzenga to push the envelope, get to third, and then score on an Eli Wilson single.

Michigan State gave Minnesota a couple of opportunities, and didn’t always capitalize on their own, which is something they knew they couldn’t afford to do.

“Minnesota, you can’t give them opportunities, and we maybe left a couple out there,” said Michigan State head coach Jake Boss, Jr. “Missed a couple of opportunities on our end to score, but they pitched it extremely well, and made pitches when they needed to.”

The Golden Gophers are now in great shape moving forward in this tournament. In an effort to keep top two starters Reggie Meyer and Patrick Fredrickson on more normal rest, they turned to Jake Stevenson to get them through the opener. While Stevenson wasn’t altogether efficient and was forced from the game after allowing a two-run double to Zack McGuire in the fourth, he got them through 3.2 innings, and the duo of Brett Schulze and Max Meyer were every bit as effective as they have been throughout the course of the season in tossing the last 5.1 innings to close out the win.

Schulze threw 3.2 shutout innings, giving up four hits and one walk with three strikeouts, while Meyer gave up a walk with two strikeouts to finish the last 1.2 innings.

“I thought it was a good outing for us,” said Minnesota head coach John Anderson of Stevenson’s start. “It wasn’t pretty all the time, but it was a really good outing. He’s never pitched on a big stage like this before. This is the first time for him. When you look back on everything that happened tonight, I thought it was an impressive outing.”

It certainly wasn’t the prettiest win. The game had an uneven pace to it, Stevenson got his team what they needed, but it wasn’t a gem of a start by any means, and it wasn’t anywhere close to one of their most prolific offensive games as a team. But they found a way to win, and as much as it’s a cliche, it’s true that that’s often the mark of good teams.

“It’s not going to be pretty all the time,” Anderson said. “We talk about that all the time, just find ways to win games. Sometimes you play more efficiently than other days. We’ve won some games like that this year. We’ve made just enough plays, just got enough hits, made enough pitches, and won the game. One of their team values is grit, and I think they are pretty gritty. They find a way.”

Illinois Fights Way to Another Win

Illinois came into their Wednesday Big Ten tournament opener with 31 wins on the season, many of which followed a similar script. They get a quality, if not particularly deep, start from their starting pitcher, they take advantage of their opportunities offensively and scratch out enough runs to get the job done, and they play outstanding defense.

It’s no surprise, then, that win number 32 for the Illini, a 7-1 victory over Indiana late Wednesday night, featured more of the same.

Quinn Snarskis was the starting pitcher on this occasion who gave Illinois a solid start. He threw 5.1 shutout innings, giving up one hit with two walks and three strikeouts. He wasn’t dominant, but he was incredibly effective, and he put his team in a position to win the game. In other words, he did what he’s done pretty much all season.

With the success he had in this setting, a big game in a big stadium with sights and sounds a little bit different than your typical Big Ten game, you’re reminded of what Snarskis accomplished earlier this season during the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, when he threw 5.2 scoreless innings in a 5-3 win over UCLA. An experience like that can make an experience like Wednesday night a bit less daunting.

“I definitely think there’s something you could take away from that,” Snarskis said. “Playing at US Bank earlier was really a cool experience. I’d never been able to do something like that. Having that exposure, where there’s a ton of seats, a ton of fans, it kind of made it a little easier tonight, a little less pressure, because I was used to it.”

Offensively, they were able to break open a scoreless game in the sixth with a three-run rally that took advantage of a three minute span where the Indiana defense simply blinked. With two men on and two outs, Illinois designated hitter Michael Michalak hit a routine chopper to short. Jeremy Houston fielded it cleanly, but his throw pulled first baseman Matt Lloyd off the bag and got away, allowing both runners to score. Immediately afterward, Doran Turchin hit a sky-high fly ball to right field that Logan Sowers simply dropped, which scored Michalak.

And that was all that the Illini would need.

It’s not all they got, though. They tacked on four more in the seventh, with the big blow coming on a Michael Massey three-run homer off of funky lefty B.J. Sabol that made it 7-0.

“It actually started in the on-deck circle,” Massey said of his at-bat. “Coach (Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb) came up to me and told me to visualize a pitch. Off of lefties, I don’t like to get tied up in, so I try to visualize something out over the plate. I kind of went back to my previous at-bat earlier in the year off of him. I just really tried to stay on a ball and line something the other way, and he came in and I just kind of followed through with it.”

The trademark defense was there for the Illini as well.

Bren Spillane flashed some leather in the fifth when he ranged to his right to snare a hard grounder and then threw on the run to second for the inning-ending force play with two men on. In the seventh, Massey leapt and snared a smoked line drive off the bat of Logan Sowers that looked ticketed for right-center. In the eighth, shortstop Ben Troike dove for a chopper up the middle, all the while extending his foot to touch second base for a force out as his momentum pulled him away from the bag. That’s to say nothing of the fact that the team played nine innings of error-free baseball in the win.

Defense can certainly win games from time to time, but it’s not common for a team to win games through defense with the frequency in which the Illini do.

“We’ve had some really good defenses, but I’m not sure it stacks up to this one,” Hartleb said. “You look at our middle infield, and they’re unbelievable defenders…We can run in the outfield. Sometimes you hide a guy at first base. We have the most athletic first baseman in the country. You saw the play he made to get the out at second base, he’s done that multiple times this year. We have good athletes, we have guys that believe in themselves. It’s a pretty special defense.”

Steady pitching plus opportunistic hitting plus air-tight defense equaled a win for the Illini on Wednesday night, just as it has time and again in 2018.

“I wouldn’t say we’re great anywhere, we’re pretty good everywhere, though,” Hartleb said. “Defensively, we’re really strong. You look at our pitching. We’re not overpowering, but we can pitch. We have some weapons out of the bullpen. Offensively, you have one guy who’s pretty special, but there’s guys on base around him all the time.”

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About the Author

Joseph Healy
Growing up in Houston, Joe Healy was introduced to college baseball at a young age, and it was love at first sight. Like most good love stories, that love has only grown throughout the years. When he's not at the ballpark, he enjoys tacos, college football during the fall, and the spectacle that is American politics. He holds a B.A. in Political Science from Sam Houston State University and a Master's in Public Administration from Southern Illinois University- Edwardsville.