CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Gophers first baseman Robb Quinlan triumphantly galloped across home plate.
Minnesota baseball players unified near the pitcher’s mound, forming a tangled pile.
Relatives of team members jumped up and down, acting as though they had rediscovered their own youth, before proudly standing on the roof of the third base dugout at Illinois Field.
Gophers baseball rooters, some of them with blurred vision as tears trickled down their cheeks, snapped pictures of the post-game celebration.
When the players finally calmed down, only to pose for a team picture in front of the left field fence, the true meaning of the day’s victory was realized.
All of the emotions that followed Minnesota’s 9-8 win over Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament championship game were the product of recent frustration.
Minnesota (45-13) has been successful in the past and expectations have always been high. But the program suffered a serious drought by failing to make a Big Ten tournament appearance in 1996 and 1997.
While Gophers head coach John Anderson celebrated his birthday Saturday evening, the team celebrated its first Big Ten title since 1992 and its first regional berth since 1994.
Seeded as the No. 2 team, Minnesota played like it was a top seed, beating third-seeded Ohio State 10-3 and fourth-seeded Penn State 14-5 on Thursday and Friday.
While the Gophers dominated their first two games, game three’s outcome was more in doubt, as Minnesota actually needed to battle back. Illinois was coming out of the loser’s bracket and facing a must-win situation. If Illinois won Saturday’s game, it would force a rematch on Sunday, the winner taking the tournament title.
Facing as much as a four-run deficit, the Gophers found themselves losing by one run in the ninth inning with two outs. Minnesota’s rally came from this standard method: a hit batsman, sacrifice bunt, run-scoring Illini error, wild pitch, walk, intentional walk and a single by Mark Groebner.
“This team is just amazing compared to the teams of the past couple of years,” Groebner said. “It just kind of felt like in years past, it seemed like it would take something lucky for us to come back, whereas this team kind of goes along. It doesn’t matter if it’s the first inning, the fifth inning or ninth inning. You can just sense that as a team there just isn’t as much panic.”
Maybe the atmosphere is looser in the dugout because every player was contributing to the wins, including the bottom half of the Gophers batting order.
On Saturday, the bottom four Minnesota hitters went 8-for-17, including two doubles and a home run.
“I know going in we talked about the bottom half of our order being able to contribute for us to get the win in the tournament,” Anderson said. “People are going to zero in on the Quinlans and the (Matt) Scanlons and the (Craig) Selanders and the Groebners, and they are going to try and get those people out. You win with lineups, you don’t win with two or three people.”
The last four hitters in Illinois’ lineup were almost as productive, going 5-for-15. Fifteen Illini hits, including four doubles, a triple and a home run made the loss even harder for the host school to accept.
“It’s definitely a tough loss, especially in the last at bat,” Illini outfielder Danny Rhodes said. “We battled our butts off, but I think we’ve got to give them credit. They came through in a clutch situation, and you’ve got to give them the win.”
Rhodes said the results would have been much different on Sunday if the Illini had hung on to their lead and forced a rematch.
“With our pitching, we would have won the game,” Rhodes said. “I mean that’s not definite, but I put us over them (Sunday) if we made the game. That’s why we knew that if we beat McGrath, their starting pitcher (Saturday), you know we would have won the game (Sunday). We obviously have a better and deeper pitching staff.”
The Gophers pitching staff fared well on Saturday against Penn State.
Starter Brad Pautz scattered eleven hits while striking out three Lions hitters before being replaced in the sixth inning. Gophers relievers Brandon Kitzerow, Andy Persby and Jason Shupe surrendered no hits.
Penn State’s pitching staff could not contain Minnesota’s offense, especially in the sixth inning.
In scoring 10 runs in the frame, the Gophers tied a Big Ten Tournament record for the most runs scored in the a single inning (Indiana and Minnesota accomplished the feat in 1995).
“In baseball I always think a big-run inning is three or more, and we gave them 10, so it’s sort of like three huge innings all in one,” Penn State coach Joe Hindelang said.
The Gophers’ big offensive showing sent the Lions to the loser’s bracket, where they eventually lost to Illinois on Saturday.
“It had a big impact on the game,” Gophers third baseman Matt Scanlon said of the big inning. “It kind of buried them a little bit. I could tell how their bench died a little bit after that inning, knowing they were going to have to score to get back into the game.”
With the tournament win, the Gophers are guaranteed a spot at one of the eight regional tournaments scheduled next weekend. Minnesota will find out today where they are headed. The selection show will be broadcast on ESPN at 2 p.m.
Anderson said it would be a shame if the Illini (39-19) were not offered a bid.
“I will be disappointed if two teams don’t get in; I mean that sincerely,” Anderson said. “Let’s hope for our league that we don’t get overlooked again because of the part of the country we are in.”