OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Ben Mezzenga drove in Minnesota’s go-ahead run in the Big Ten Tournament championship game, but no play was more important than his throw home Sunday to prevent Purdue from tying it in the eighth inning.
“It’s an outfielder’s dream to come up and fire a guy out like that,” Mezzenga said after the top-seeded Gophers won 6-4 to complete their sweep of the conference’s regular-season and tournament titles.
Minnesota had outscored the Boilermakers 40-15 in two regular-season games, but this one was close throughout. The Gophers came back three times from one-run deficits in the first six innings. They went ahead in the bottom of the sixth on singles by Luke Pettersen and Mezzenga.
Mezzenga’s huge defensive play came after Evan Kennedy doubled off All-Big Ten reliever Max Meyer. Charlie Nasuti pinch ran and tried to score from second when Evan Warden singled into left field with two outs. Mezzenga came up throwing and nailed Nasuti at the plate. The play was upheld after a video review.
Purdue coach Mark Wasikowski said the decision to send Nasuti home could be second-guessed, but not by him.
“We play on the edge of overaggressive,” he said. “To pump the brakes on how we’ve played all season, I don’t think we’re in the championship game if we aren’t aggressive.”
Minnesota coach John Anderson said Mezzenga, his junior left fielder, probably wouldn’t have made the play earlier in his career.
“Ben has progressed very well in this program, but it hasn’t been pretty,” Anderson said.
Mezzenga won the job in left field because of his speed and range. Before Sunday, he hadn’t thrown out a runner at the plate since early last season.
“My arm strength hasn’t always been there,” he said. “It was below average at best coming out of high school. I’ve taken that to heart and really worked at it. The ball felt good coming out of my hand. I got a good running start and I knew I was maybe going to overthrow. I calmed myself down and took a couple extra steps to make sure I was under control.”
Minnesota (41-13) tacked on an insurance run in the eighth to help secure its first tournament title since 2010 and 10th in 37 years under Anderson.
Sam Thoresen (2-2) pitched 1 1/3 innings of relief for the win. Meyer worked the eighth and ninth for his 16th save. Trevor Cheaney (1-2) took the loss.
Purdue (37-19) was picked 11th in the 14-team Big Ten but made a surprise run to second place. The Boilermakers’ loss was their first in eight games, and they’ve won 21 of 24 since April 20.
“The run ain’t over yet,” center fielder Skyler Howard said. “We’ve got a regional coming up. That loss puts a little fire in our eyes. We’re going to play with a bigger chip and show the nation the Purdue Boilermakers can play baseball.”
Minnesota has won 27 of its last 30 and almost certainly will be one of the 16 regional hosts for the NCAA Tournament.
“We can go as long as we want to,” Mezzenga said about the Gophers’ NCAA prospects. “We definitely have enough talent on our team, and we hold grit as one of our biggest values. As long as we stay gritty like we did today, even if a team strikes at us or takes a lead on us, if we stay gritty, we can grind out at-bats and get big hits and the big moments.”
HEAT IS ON
The last two days of the tournament were played in extreme heat, a contrast to the weather Big Ten teams are accustomed to. Temperature at first pitch Sunday was 97 degrees, and it was 101 by the late innings. A light wind blew in from the southeast.
The Big Ten expects to have five teams selected for the NCAA Tournament on Monday. Minnesota, which came into Sunday No. 14 in the RPI and has its first 40-win season since 2009, is the conference’s automatic qualifier. Purdue, Indiana (38-17), Ohio State (36-22) and Illinois (33-20) are in line for at-large bids.