In oppressive, 97-degree Omaha heat, the battle between the Big Ten’s two best teams was a hotly-contested one, a contest which saw Minnesota outlast Purdue, winning 6-4, to claim the 2018 Big Ten Tournament championship. Their 10th tournament title, the Gophers claim the conference’s automatic bid to next week’s NCAA Tournament.
As they have all season, Minnesota performed in a workman-like fashion to cap a perfect 4-0 week.
With the second-seeded Boilermakers the designated visitors, in the top of the first, center fielder Skyler Hunter lined a first-pitch, two-out single up the middle. Three pitches later, first baseman Jacson McGowan lined a double over the head of Minnesota center fielder Alex Boxwell, plating Hunter for the initial 1-0 lead.
Where Purdue used a back-to-back hits to jump out in front, big blasts in back-to-back innings saw the Gophers grab the lead.
Making his fourth start of the season, the first pitch of the second inning from Purdue right-hander Andrew Bohm was hit into the left field bullpen by Minnesota catcher Eli Wilson, tying the game 1-1. In the third, another first-pitch big hit came off of the bat of Terrin Vavra, with the junior shortstop hitting his 10th home run of the season to right center, pushing Minnesota in front, 2-1.
After a scoreless fourth, the two regional-bound teams traded blows over the next two innings, creating a back-and-forth content fitting of the conference’s two hottest teams.
In the fifth inning, Purdue seized the opportunity created in Minnesota turning to the bullpen, relieving starter Nick Lackney who held the them to five hits over four inning. Facing right-hander Brett Schulze, a leadoff single from second baseman Tyler Powers and a one-out walk drawn by catcher Nick Dalesandro put two Boilers aboard. Hunter’s second single, followed by McGowan’s second double, put the Boilers back on top, 3-2. Minnesota responded with an RBI-single from left fielder Ben Mezzenga, scoring DH Toby Hanson, who singled to open the home-half of the frame before moving to second on a sac bunt by Luke Pettersen, then to third on a fly out by Boxwell.
An inning later, the roles reversed with Purdue scoring a run, countered by two from the Gophers.
Singles from right fielder Alec Olund, Powers, and a run-scoring drive to right from shortstop Harry Shipley put Purdue back in front, 4-3. But after the tying run crossed home, in the next at-bat, Shipley was thrown out trying to move into scoring position, with Wilson throwing him out on a dirt ball read.
A string of three singles in the bottom of the sixth pushed Minnesota back in front, the contest’s third lead change in four at-bats. A leadoff single from Boxwell, followed by a sacrifice bunt from right fielder Jordan Kozicky, then RBI-single from Petterson, tied the game, before the 25th RBI of the season by Mezzenga, a liner up the middle, gave the Gophers a 5-4 lead.
Purdue’s aggressive nature that saw Shipley thrown out to end their sixth inning at-bat, had already contributed to two outs on the bases before. In the top of the fourth, DH Nick Evarts was thrown out on an attempt to steal third base, an inning before Dalesandro tried to reach third on Hunter’s single to right that scored Powers. A fourth out on an aggressive play seeking an extra base prevented the tying run, Purdue’s last scoring threat.
With one out in the eighth inning, pinch-hitting for Evarts, DH Evan Kennedy hit a 2-2 double to right field, off Minnesota closer Max Meyer. Pinch-running for Kennedy, following a strikeout by Olund, Charlie Nasuti was thrown out at home, when Mezzenga fired to Wilson after a single to left-center field by third baseman Evan Warden.
Adding an insurance run, a one-out single by Hanson, paired with a two-out double to left center by Vavra gave Minnesota its sixth and final run of the game. Armed with a two-run lead, Meyer pitched a 1-2-3 inning for his 16th save of the season, giving the conference champion Gophers their Big Ten-leading 10th tournament title.
A lock to host their first regional since 2000, Minnesota moved to 41-13 on the season. Also heading to the NCAA Tournament, their first trip since 2012, Purdue fell to 37-19, and will find out their regional destination on Monday at noon Eastern when the entire field of 64 is announced.