Gophers take series finale over Illinois with late comeback

Minnesota took a 5-4 victory over Illinois after dropping both games of a double-header Sunday.

Shortstop Jordan Kozicky hits a solo home run in the bottom of the second inning on Wednesday, March 27 at Siebert Field.

Jack Warrick

Shortstop Jordan Kozicky hits a solo home run in the bottom of the second inning on Wednesday, March 27 at Siebert Field.

Jack Warrick

Minnesota responded on Monday after dropping both games of a double-header on Sunday to Illinois.

The Gophers came back from a 4-1 deficit in the late stages of the game and took the victory over Illinois (22-12, 3-6 Big Ten) on Monday in the series finale at Siebert Field 5-4. 

“It’s a 24-game season. It’s not like a 162-game season where you can get them back later,” said head coach John Anderson about Big Ten play. “That’s why you’ve got to show up every day and get ready to play.”

The Gophers (15-18, 7-5 Big Ten) had one out and the bases loaded in the bottom of the eighth inning. Minnesota’s catcher and second hitter in the lineup, Eli Wilson, stepped up to the plate as the Gophers trailed 4-3 in the final game of the series.

Illinois pitcher Sean Leland beaned Wilson in the hands, which walked a runner home to tie the game up 4-4. The officials discussed whether it hit his hand or the butt of the bat, but the call stood.

“It hit me in the hand and the knob. I didn’t sell it very well because it all happened so fast,” Wilson said, sporting a black and blue swollen hand. “I think they got the call right, to be completely honest.”

Gophers designated hitter Drew Hmielewski drove in the game-winning run with a fielder’s choice to second base, allowing second baseman Zack Raabe to score. 

After the Gophers took their first lead of the game in the bottom of the eighth inning, Brett Schulze recorded the save in the final inning. It was his fifth save of the season. Minnesota left-handed pitcher Nick Lackney recorded the win, allowing no runs and two hits in 3 2/3 innings of work.

“Soon as I knew that we had a lead going into the ninth with Schulze in the bullpen, we had a good chance to win the game. And that’s exactly what happened,” said Gophers shortstop Jordan Kozicky.

Hmielewski, who batted in the game-winning run, went 1-for-2 with two RBIs on the day at the designated hitter spot. Eduardo Estrada, who designated hit before Hmielewski, hit 2-for-3 with an RBI.

Sophomore pitcher Joshua Culliver started on the mound. He gave up three hits and two runs in the first inning, to give the Fighting Illini a 2-0 lead. Culliver pitched three scoreless innings after the first inning.

“[Culliver] was out there not trusting his stuff, no conviction, no confidence in what he was doing. I just challenged him [saying], ‘I don’t care what happens here. I want you to throw the stuff over the plate with some conviction,” Anderson said. “And he responded.”

Kozicky hit a sacrifice ground ball to the Illinois second baseman in the third inning to score Wilson from third base. Kozicky’s 33rd RBI of the season cut Illinois’ lead to 2-1. Minnesota had three hits in the third inning, including a double from Estrada that brought Wilson to third base. Estrada suffered an injury late in the game.

Minnesota center fielder Ben Mezzenga ended the top of the fourth inning with a highlight-reel grab in left-center field for the third out.

Fighting Illini outfielder Zac Taylor hit a two-run homer in the top of the fifth inning off Culliver to increase their lead to 4-1. Taylor, a red shirt senior from Downers Grove, Illinois, went 5-for-11 with six RBIs in the series.

Culliver walked the next batter, and senior left-hand pitcher Nick Lackney relieved him to get out of the inning.

Hmielewski got in at the designated hitter position for the Gophers in the seventh inning, and hit a single up the middle to score Mezzenga, which moved the Gophers closer with a 4-2 score. Minnesota’s first baseman Cole McDevitt hit a double later in the inning to score Hmielewski, which brought the Gophers within one run.

Illinois pitcher Nathan Lavender recorded the loss, pitching for one out and allowing two runs.

Hmielewski led Minnesota offensively on Monday hitting 1-for-2 with two RBIs, including the game-winner. McDevitt led Minnesota in the series, hitting 6-for-12 in the series.

Minnesota will play South Dakota State Tuesday at 6 p.m. at Siebert Field. The first 100 students at the game will receive a free Master’s golf theme hat.