IOWA CITY — Rick Heller had to ask Friday night how many in a row this made it.
“What was it, our sixth?” the Iowa baseball coach said.
Yes, Rick, this is your sixth season here, and the sixth time your Hawkeyes have won at least 30 games. That nice, even, successful number was achieved with a 7-5 survival of Michigan State at Duane Banks Field.
These are salad days for Iowa baseball, whatever that means. And they might not even be salad days, since Heller has his sights set on even bigger things than regular appearances in the Big Ten Conference tournament and regular trips to the NCAA regionals.
You know, it’s that College World Series thing. But, still, that this group, in particular, has achieved 30 wins and counting is very good.
There were some question marks coming in, with so many newcomers and so many important guys who graduated and/or moved on to pro ball. Iowa is 30-17 overall and 12-7 in the Big Ten, leapfrogging Nebraska, which is playing a nonconference series with Arizona State this weekend, for third place.
“That this team has showed up and played hard every day and found ways to get it done when adversity struck, which it has a lot this year (is big),” Heller said. “A lot of guys have stepped up and played and came through. It is a good mark for us to get that 30th win ... A good benchmark for our program, that even when we lose a lot of guys like we did last year and there are some things happen that you can’t control, that our program is bigger than anything. We just keep moving.”
For Iowa offensively here, it was blast, bloop, bloop instead of the other way around.
The blast was Zeb Adreon’s first-inning grand slam. He was the last of four Hawkeyes to reach base leading off the game against Michigan State starting pitcher Mason Erla, albeit briefly, as he pulled a pitch over the right-field fence to also score Chris Whelan, Izaya Fullard and Austin Martin.
It was Iowa’s first granny of the season, Adreon’s second homer of the season.
“This is a huge series for us to stay at the top of the Big Ten and to reach the goals we want to,” Adreon said.
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That’s to try and clinch an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament. Iowa seems to be right on the fence that way, with six regular-season games left, including ones Saturday afternoon at 2:05 and Sunday afternoon at 1:05 against Michigan State.
The Spartans (17-31, 5-13) tied the game at 4-4 in the top of the sixth inning only to see Iowa get a pair of go-ahead bloop RBI singles from Fullard and Martin with two outs in the bottom of the frame. Iowa’s bullpen picked up starter Cole McDonald, who was pulled after five innings and 86 pitches.
Adam Ketelsen (1-0) got the victory despite allowing an unearned run. Trace Hoffman and Grant Leonard followed from there, with Leonard finishing the final 1 1/3 innings for his 13th save, tying a school single-season record.
“It’s a cool feat,” said Leonard, a junior who walked on to the program. “But what I’m really here for is to get this team to where we want to be. We’ve been working for since August to go to regionals and compete for Omaha. If we get a couple of milestones along the way, that’s even better.”
Fullard, the former Iowa City West star and Kirkwood Community College standout, had four hits for Iowa and made a terrific defensive play at second base on a ball that appeared headed up the middle to tie the game in the eighth. Heller said he was concerned about this series, coming off a a huge series win last weekend against nationally-ranked California-Irvine and with this being finals week for his players.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “Trace Hoffman had a final at 3 o’clock today. It takes guys out of the routine, no mid-week game, a lot on their minds. A lot on the seniors’ minds, with graduation and the last weekend here at Banks. As a coach, you just hope that all the stuff you’ve worked on all year comes through. I thought our effort was really good.”
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