The memory still gives Creighton pitcher Mark Winkelman goose bumps.
As a freshman in 2010, Winkelman was pitching at Rosenblatt Stadium in front of a crowd 100 times larger than his high school graduating class of 26. The Bluejays were clinging to a 3-2 lead against Evansville, which had runners on first and third with two outs in the ninth inning.
Pinch-hitter Ryan Oesterle had worked the count to three balls and two strikes against Winkelman. From the dugout, Rob Smith, then the Creighton pitching coach, signaled that he wanted Winkleman’s next pitch to be a fastball.
On the mound, Winkelman did something that not a lot of freshmen would do in that situation. He shook off catcher Carson Vitale, then threw a change-up that Oesterle swung through.
“It was some little kid promotion night, and everyone was stomping before I threw that last pitch,” Winkelman said. “I could feel it coming up in my legs.
“That’s something I’ll always remember.”
Creighton coach Ed Servais also hasn’t forgotten that pitch, mainly because it provided him a glimpse of what he had in the young left-hander from Harvard, Ill.
“You don’t often see a freshman shake off a call and then execute the pitch at the level he did,” Servais said. “I knew right then and there this was a guy that was going to get a lot more appearances.”
No Creighton pitcher has made more than Winkleman, who on Tuesday tied Scott Reese’s program and Missouri Valley record when he took the mound for the 123rd time. Chances are he’ll break the records this weekend when the Bluejays face a crucial Valley series at Illinois State.
The Redbirds are in first place, percentage points ahead of Missouri State and Wichita State. Creighton (24-11, 8-4) is a game behind but holds its championship destiny in its hand as it will play its final three conference series against those teams.
“This weekend and the next couple of weekends are definitely big for us,” Winkelman said. “I’m glad we have these three teams at the end of our schedule because we tend to get better toward the end of the year.
“I think we’re definitely ready for this weekend, and I think we’re going to step up and play well.”
Winkelman has pitched in 24 of Creighton’s 35 games this season and is 5-0 with one save with a 3.77 ERA. His 43 innings are third-most on the staff, and he’s limiting opposing hitters to a .268 batting average.
Over his four seasons at Creighton, Winkelman has demonstrated outstanding durability as he has appeared in almost 6 out every 10 games the Bluejays has played. That workload is tied to the reliability he has shown while pitching in any situation a reliever can face.
“Mark has gone to the mat for us a ton,” Servais said. “In order to set that record, he had to pitch a lot as a freshman. During Mark’s early years here, we had a veteran staff, so for him to break in as a freshman and pitch with a lot of older guys tells you a lot.
“He’s also been able to pitch with a tired arm when some players don’t want to go out there unless they’re fresh and healthy. He’s been out there a lot when he probably wasn’t 100 percent for the betterment of the team. That tells you something about his being a team player.”
Winkelman takes pride in his durability but setting appearance records was hardly on his mind when he joined the program out of Alden-Hebron High School. He hadn’t been exposed to a high level of competition in high school, leaving him uncertain how he would fit in on the Creighton staff.
“I was nervous coming in, not knowing if I could hang with this competition,” Winkelman said. “Getting a chance to pitch in our first game my freshman year gave me a lot of confidence. I gained some confidence after my freshman year, stuck with and I think things have worked out.”
Winkelman said he used to joke with former Creighton reliever Jack VanLeur about the appearance record. VanLeur finished his career in 2011 second on the all-time list with 115 appearances.
Winkelman passed his former teammate earlier this season and is ready to stand alone as the program’s all-time ironman.
“I wanted to start when I came here but now I definitely prefer the bullpen,” he said. “Usually when I come into games it’s a big situation — runners on, close game. I’ve come to love the adrenaline you get when you come running in from the bullpen.
“I like being the guy that can come out of the bullpen two or three times a weekend. I pride myself on being the guy that can be out there game after game.”
NOTES: Creighton will start right-hander Tommy Strunc (6-1, 3.26 ERA) in Friday’s 6:30 p.m. opener against Illinois State’s Chris Razo (5-0, 1.25 ERA). … Illinois State is 28-16 and 9-3 in the Valley. The Redbirds have won 26 of their past 36 games after a 2-6 start. … Creighton shortstop Alex Staehely has been named first-team Academic All-District. The honor puts Staehely, an accounting and finance major with a 3.65 grade-point average, in line for Academic All-America consideration.
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