Walk-off hit gives Gophers opening-round win in Big Ten tournament

Andy Henkemeyer provided the game-tying and game-winning hits for a Gophers team that likely needs to win the tournament to keep its season alive.

Minnesota celebrates their win against Illinois Wednesday at Target Field in Minneapolis, progressing in the Big Ten Tournament.

Bridget Bennett

Minnesota celebrates their win against Illinois Wednesday at Target Field in Minneapolis, progressing in the Big Ten Tournament.

Jace Frederick

Andy Henkemeyer’s bases-loaded walk-off line drive down the right-field line gave the Gophers a 3-2 victory over Illinois in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament Wednesday afternoon at Target Field.

The win kept the Gophers in the winner’s bracket, giving them a much shorter path through a tournament they likely need to win to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament.

“Never give up, never give in,” said Gophers head coach John Anderson. “I thought we played that way for nine innings — we’re a team that has to find a way to grind it out.”

Henkemeyer was the star of the day. Along with the game-winning single, he provided the game-tying two-out single in the fifth inning and finished with three of Minnesota’s eight hits on the afternoon.

“For me to be successful I like to get on the pitcher early, attack the ball and if it’s a strike, go after the first one,” Henkemeyer said. “[In the last at-bat] I was just trying to go after the first cutter there, and I got one.”

On Henkemeyer’s game-tying hit, Gophers center fielder Troy Larson appeared to have his foot tagged by Illinois catcher Jason Goldstein prior to touching home while trying to score from second base. But Larson was ruled safe.

“It’s part of the game — you can’t let one run affect you,” said Illinois head coach Dan Hartleb. “We still had many opportunities. That should not have affected us.”

Those opportunities came early and often for Illinois, who left the bases loaded three times and stranded 13 runners.

“We were fortunate, no question about it,” Anderson said. “Give the kids credit. They made pitches and made plays. We were fortunate that they didn’t get that big hit and we did. That’s baseball some days.”

The game featured a pair of the league’s top pitchers during the regular season. Gophers ace and All-Big Ten First Team honoree Tom Windle squared off against Big Ten Freshman of the Year Kevin Duchene.

Windle struggled with his command. He walked six and threw 108 pitches in five innings but gave up just two runs.

“Windle found a way to pitch himself out of a bunch of jams,” Anderson said, “and he stranded a bunch of runners and gave us a chance in the second half of the game to be able to hang in there and use our last at-bat.”

Gophers pitcher Ben Meyer was nearly perfect in relief. He threw four scoreless innings while allowing two hits and striking out four. Anderson said Meyer could pitch again if the Gophers advance deep into the weekend.

“Ben came out of the bullpen today and just did a phenomenal job,” Anderson said.

D.J. Snelten, the Gophers’ only other first-team All-Big Ten honoree, will start on the mound Thursday, Anderson said. The Gophers will play either Indiana or Ohio State in the second round.