OMAHA, NE- In Minnesota’s 3-0 win over Illinois on Thursday night, a win that moved the Golden Gophers to the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament, Reggie Meyer was nothing short of outstanding.
He threw a complete game shutout, allowing three hits and one walk with eight strikeouts. In the first inning, he faced a mini-jam with runners on the corners and one out after a Micah Coffey fielding error and a Bren Spillane single into right field, but a tailor-made double play ball off the bat of Michael Massey got him out of it.
From there, he cruised. He enjoyed 1-2-3 innings in six of the other eight frames, and only when a walk to Michael Michalak was followed up with a Jeff Korte single in the fifth did the Illini put two men on in the same inning again.
“I just try not to think about it too much, but for the most part, it is just kind of me and Eli (Wilson) playing catch,” Meyer said. “I trust the defense behind me, they’ve been outstanding all year. I just threw strikes and let them hit it to our defense.”
This is just the latest example of Meyer giving Minnesota just what they need in the rotation. As the team’s Friday starter all season long, he’s 7-3 with a 2.75 ERA. In 95 innings, he’s struck out 61 and walked just 12. With a walk total like that, it’s clear it’s not just lip service when Meyer says he’s comfortable pounding the strike zone and letting the defense work.
But while this might have just been the latest quality outing in a season full of them, it was breaking new ground for Meyer in one way, as it’s his first career complete game. He had one other chance this year to get one, against Indiana on May 4th. He went into the ninth looking to seal up a 4-1 win, but walks to Logan Kaletha and Matt Lloyd to begin the ninth inning torpedoed his chances to finish the game, and Max Meyer came on to close out the victory.
“This is my first career complete game, so it definitely feels pretty good,” Meyer said. “I had a chance earlier in the year and I walked the first two guys of the inning, so it feels pretty good to finally get one.”
That missed opportunity for a complete game stuck out to Minnesota head coach John Anderson as well, as he was quick to juxtapose Meyer’s struggles to finish off that last compete game bid with the game on Thursday, when Meyer metaphorically ran through the finish line, showing the improvement that his pitcher has made through the course of the season.
“We talked about that after. I can’t remember which game it was, but I thought he lost his aggressiveness a little bit and didn’t attack the strike zone like he had the whole game,” Anderson said. “I was thinking about that in the last inning when I was watching him out there. I think he learned his lesson from the last time and kept up his arm and hand speed and just continued to attack. I think that’s just maturation as a pitcher. It’s the growth that goes on as you work your way through a Division I career here, and you learn things, and you try to apply them and move on, and I think if you study Reggie’s carer, that’s what it’s been, steady improvement.”
Overall, steady is probably also a good word to describe what Meyer has been at the front of the rotation all season, and Minnesota has needed him to be. There were questions about how the Gophers’ pitching staff would shake out this season, and with Meyer anchoring the rotation the way he has, it opened the door for Anderson and pitching coach Ty McDevitt to give chances to some more unproven pitchers like freshmen Patrick Fredrickson and Sam Thoresen, as well as junior Jake Stevenson, who came into the season with only two career starts.
Without that steady hand on Friday nights, perhaps they wouldn’t have felt so comfortable putting those guys in that position.
“It allows you to take some risks and try some different things and experiment with your rotation,” Anderson said. “We knew going into the season we wanted him on Friday because he’s a strike-thrower and we knew he was going to get us deep into games, especially with that sink, he was going to get a lot of ground balls, we knew we were going to have a good defense. And we just felt like he could save our bullpen for the next two games with the uncertainty, especially early in the year, of how our staff was going to come together. It gave us confidence that we could put him in that slot knowing that we were pretty confident in what he was going to give us.”
Having him there has paid off handsomely. Fredrickson ran with his chance to move into the rotation earlier this season and went on to become the Big Ten’s Pitcher of the Year and Freshman of the Year. He’ll go into his start on Saturday in the semifinals 8-0 with a 1.80 ERA and a .207 opponent batting average in 80 innings of work. And while Thoresen and Stevenson have been more inconsistent, it did allow them the opportunity to gain some experience that could pay dividends in the postseason, as both have been put in some big spots this season. Most recently, Stevenson took the ball to start in the team’s Big Ten tournament opener against Michigan State on Wednesday and helped the Gophers to a 3-2 win.
There might be more dominant pitchers out there, but it’s hard to imagine a pitcher better suited for what Minnesota needed this year than Reggie Meyer.