Gophers' Windle maturing at right time
MINNEAPOLIS — Like many kids in Minnesota, Tom Windle grew up paying hockey. But the Osseo native also played baseball and eventually had to make a choice between the two sports. It wasn't until his junior year of high school that Windle fully dedicated himself to baseball, realizing his future might be better in that sport.
But being a high school baseball player in Minnesota isn't always easy. Baseball fields across the state are often covered with snow until April. By that point, kids in Florida and California are well into their baseball seasons. That leaves just a few months for the Minnesota high school season, followed by an abbreviated summer schedule.
For players such as Windle, a junior at the University of Minnesota, their transformation often doesn't take place until college.
"They're hockey players that their career ended in high school and we're trying to make baseball players out of. They just liked playing it because they like the sport," Gophers head coach John Anderson said. "So you get them to this level, we're trying to polish them to play at this level. You go to California … those kids out there play baseball like our kids play hockey. They're more polished, they've faced better competition, they're further along in their development."
That's what Anderson is finding out first-hand with Windle, whose maturation as a starting pitcher culminated last week with the first no-hitter of his college career. The 6-foot-4 left-hander blanked Western Illinois and allowed just one walk to record the Gophers' first nine-inning no-hitter since 1931.
Judging by the outing Windle had one game prior to the no-hitter, it was hard to see something like this coming. He was roughed up in a start against Dartmouth in which he allowed six runs (five earned) on nine hits in just 4 1/3 innings of work. He also had three wild pitches and walked a pair.
Windle took that start personally and worked hard the following week to make changes. He wanted to regain the command of his fastball, which escaped him against Dartmouth. Windle's slider — which Anderson calls "devastating" — also failed him, so he focused on his arm speed during his bullpen sessions.
That work translated into nine innings of no-hit ball — and in just 95 pitches. Windle struck out eight Western Illinois batters and was able to work quickly by running his low-90s fastball inside to hitters. He also mixed in his changeup, the third pitch in his repertoire and one he's still working to improve.
Windle's no-hitter earned him several accolades, including Big Ten Pitcher of the Week and National Pitcher of the Week by CollegeBaseballInsider.com. Unfortunately, Windle's parents, Craig and Susan, didn't happen to be at the Metrodome the night of his historic game — just the tenth no-hitter in Gophers history and sixth by a single pitcher. Susan had to work that Friday, while Craig was up in Bemidji to watch Tom's twin brother, Sam, play hockey for Bemidji State against Minnesota in the teams' final regular-season series.
There's a good chance Windle's family will be at his game this Friday night, even though Sam is also in action in Minneapolis. Bemidji State plays the Gophers once again in the WCHA Playoffs at Mariucci Arena, so the Windles can see Sam on Saturday night. Meanwhile, Tom will be pitching Friday at the Metrodome and will be going toe-to-toe with one of the nation's best college pitchers in Indiana State's Sean Manaea. College Baseball Daily has Manaea as the third-best player in college baseball, while Windle ranks 20th on that list.
"This is going to be a big game on Friday for both of our teams," Windle said. "I pitched against Sean in the Cape (Cod League) this summer. He's pretty good. He's got some good stuff. I'm looking forward to having that battle against him and Indiana State."
The Windle family won't be the only ones keeping a close eye on Tom in Friday's start. There's likely to be a gathering of major league scouts in attendance, their radar guns focused on both Windle and Manaea as they scribble down notes about both pitchers.
Windle, who was drafted out of high school in the 28th round by the Chicago White Sox in 2010, will be eligible once again for the 2013 draft. There's a chance he could be taken in the first round, which would be a dream come true for the Gophers junior.
"I think about it a lot. That's my goal. That's what I want to do," Windle said of playing professionally. "But this is a stepping stone to that, so this is what's important now."
In the short term, Windle's most important task is Friday against Indiana State. He'll be the center of attention from scouts and family alike every time he takes the mound and with every pitch he throws.
But for the former hockey player and quiet team leader, that pressure is nothing new and is unlikely to faze him.
"They've been here all year. They followed him in the Cape last summer," Anderson said of the scouts. "He's been in that environment. I'd be surprised if that environment has any impact on him."
Anderson has coached several players who have gone on to play in the majors. The Minnesota Twins currently have two on their roster: closer Glen Perkins and right-hander Cole De Vries. Both also happen to be Minnesota natives, and Anderson noted their progression later in their careers.
That's the trajectory Anderson sees for Windle, too. The Gophers coach could also see him ending up at the same level as Perkins and De Vries one day.
"He's in there with some of the best guys I've had in my career. He ranks up there with those guys," Anderson said. "I think he has a chance to play the game for a while and has a chance to play at the next level if he stays healthy and continues to develop like he has. … He's got great makeup, great poise on the mound. He's got a quiet confidence to him. I think he's got the intangibles. I think he's got what it takes from the neck up."
Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.