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IOWA CITY — A $400,000 upgrade at Duane Banks Field has brought a FieldTurf infield along with a fan-friendly backstop. But the changes for Iowa baseball this year are more than just a cosmetic facility enhancement.
New Coach Rick Heller had to heal the psyche of a worn-down baseball program, concurrently with his plans to remake the image on the field. So far the improvements are obvious.
Despite Friday's 4-3 loss to Minnesota last night, Iowa baseball (20-15, 5-8 Big Ten) has enjoyed a resurgence this year. The Hawkeyes began the season 9-1, their best start since 1940. They took two of three against Nebraska and won their first Big Ten-opening series since 1998. They have 20 wins; last year Iowa finished with 22.
“Everybody feels like going into games that we're going to win,” said Iowa third baseman Nick Day, a Solon native. “I don't know if that's been the case the last few years.”
The boost starts at the plate. Iowa has 15 home runs. Last year, the small-ball Hawkeyes hit just two. Iowa ranks second in Big Ten batting average at .299. Last year, Iowa was seventh. Iowa has 64 doubles, 11 more than Iowa's entire number of extra-base hits a year ago.
Every hitter has a plan for their plate appearance. The coaches track quality at-bats and hand out weekly reports. Heller wants his batters to see their best pitch and drive the ball. The approach sounds simple, but the results are proof it works.
“One of our main goals is to go up there and get our best swing off in every at-bat,” Heller said. “To do that, a lot of things have to happen. Your pitch recognition skills have to be good. When you're getting your good swing off, you're not worried about your batting average. You're not worrying about results. You're just trying to hit the ball hard, taking it one pitch at a time.”
Iowa previously concentrated on moving runners over, which in turn cut down on strikeouts. Iowa's strikeout-per-game average has increased to 6.9 from 6.5. But the offensive freedom has bred confidence among the hitters — and Iowa's pitchers.
“It's a different mentality from the coaches,” Day said. “It's nice. A lot more faith in the hitters, having a good approach, getting it done.”
“It's definitely more of a baseball feel,” said Iowa pitcher Sasha Kuebel, who is slated start in today's 2 p.m. game against the Gophers. “It's more intense. It's more in tune. We love it. Every day when we talk there's a purpose to what we do.”
Heller replaced Jack Dahm, who was 235-302 in 10 seasons at Iowa. Heller previously has taken Northern Iowa and Indiana State to the NCAA tournament and both programs regularly overachieved.
But Heller's no miracle worker, either. Rebuilding programs like Iowa still take their lumps. Last week the Hawkeyes blew a 10-run seventh-inning lead at Northwestern. Friday, Minnesota starting pitcher and Wilton native Alec Crawford brought dozens of fans to give the ballpark a split feel rather than a home-field advantage.
Pre-existing injuries have limited Iowa's pitching options. Four pitchers — Taylor Kaufman, Josh Martsching, Will Kenny and Jacob Sharp — have yet to play this season. Kaufman and Martsching were a combined 3-5 last year but both had off-season surgery.
“I looked at the roster and thought, 'Man we're not too bad,'” Heller said. “I get here and boom, all these guys are gone. The fact we have been successful and we're continuing to improve — I don't think we've reached our peak yet — and that's another thing we focus on.”
Iowa still ranks low among its Big Ten competitors in financial support. Last year Iowa's staff was the lowest paid among Big Ten public schools and ranked second from the bottom in expenses. Heller negotiated for a higher salary with an ironclad six-year deal, so he has time to enact change. But the excuses are gone, from limited resources to weather disadvantages. Heller won't tolerate them.
“They all count,” he said. “That's what trying to get the culture to be here.”
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