116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — They were shut down just before their already delayed season began because of multiple positive COVID-19 tests.
They had to play their first four games at a neutral site in Texas, then turn around and travel to the Twin Cities the following weekend for their next games.
Nine of their first 11 games came against the top two teams in the Big Ten Conference (Nebraska and Michigan). Their first 13 came against three of the top four (Nebraska, Michigan and Ohio State).
There are plenty of reasons why the Iowa Hawkeyes got off to a slow start this baseball season. Not that they’re into excuses, especially right now.
Iowa (12-9) goes into a four-game road series this weekend against Rutgers (11-9) as the hottest team in the Big Ten. It has won four in a row and eight of nine.
The Hawkeyes have turned that early frown completely upside down.
“That’s how baseball is, you have to take them one at a time,” Coach Rick Heller said. “It can change in a hurry, good or bad. Just try to control what you can control and play the best we can. That’s what we’re trying to do. Try to get better and try to get healthy and try to get all the right guys out there together at the same time. Even when we aren’t (able to do that), we’re finding a way to win and beat good teams, play solid baseball. That’s all we can keep doing.”
Iowa was 4-8 after a loss March 26 at Ohio State. But wins the next day against OSU and Maryland started getting the positive vibes going.
The Hawkeyes have won games late and won them going away, especially last weekend when they whupped last-place Minnesota by a combined margin of 31-2. It’s the first time this season they’ve been above the .500 mark.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but we know how good we can be, and we want to be better than (this),” Iowa first baseman Peyton Williams said “We want to keep climbing. We don’t want to let getting there stop us. We want to keep the foot on the gas pedal, keep this going.”
“We’re definitely feeling really good about where we are,” Iowa outfielder-pitcher Dylan Nedved said. “We’re starting to click on all cylinders: defense, pitching and hitting. We’re feeling really good, really confident right now. Everybody is playing real well.”
Iowa’s pitching has been good all season. It goes into the weekend ranked second in the Big Ten in earned run average, behind only Indiana.
Senior Trenton Wallace has emerged as a legit ace, with a league-leading ERA of 1.87 in six starts. He has allowed just 23 hits in 33 2/3 innings and has struck out 47.
“Our defense on Friday nights has been outstanding, and I think that makes it so much easier to pitch,” he said, diplomatically. “It makes you relax a lot more. Just settles you in and lets you pound the strike zone right off the bat. When you’ve got a defense playing behind you like that, there are no worries that routine plays are going to be made.”
Junior lefty Cam Baumann has thrown well out of the rotation this season and sophomores Drew Irvine and Duncan Davitt have had their moments. Nedved and senior Trace Hoffman have been a very good one-two punch out of a good bullpen.
Iowa has struggled offensively this season, though the Minnesota series improved its team batting average from 12th to 10th in the league. Senior outfielder Ben Norman already has a career-high seven home runs (to go with a team-high 22 RBIs) and Williams has five, including a grand slam that broke open Game 1 of the Minnesota series.
Nagging injuries to guys like senior second baseman Izaya Fullard and catcher Austin Martin have impacted their offensive output, but they continue to grind things out.
“I think we’ve always had confidence,” Norman said. “But with baseball, you never know what the results are going to be. You could be the most confident person and still maybe not get those results. We’ve had good at-bats throughout the year. Maybe not as good as we’d have liked to consistently. But it’s just about always having that confidence, and now I think we’ve consistently had better at-bats (of late).”
Now the key is to keep this train rolling in hopes of getting to the postseason.
The Big Ten didn’t play any non-conference games, so the strength of the conference is anyone’s guess. It also has no tournament this season, so every one of these regular-season games takes on even more importance.
Iowa has a home series with two games each against Northwestern and Maryland after its trip to New Jersey. Then it’s a big three-game series at Indiana.
“We took another big step forward (last weekend),” Heller said. “Now we have to go to one of the toughest places to play in the Big Ten and play a four-game series with Rutgers, which has a very good team this year. We need to have another good week of practice, another big jump this week. Every weekend is going to be a challenge, and these next three weeks are against really good teams, all super talented, we’re going to see a lot of good arms, a lot of good hitters. We have to be up for it.”
“We knew the sun was going to come out eventually,” Martin said. “Thankfully it has.”
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