CEDAR RAPIDS — The hard part is over. The heavy lifting has been done.
The Iowa Hawkeyes baseball team grinded through a two-week stretch against very good opponents. They lost two of three to Minnesota, won two of three against Michigan, stopping its 20-game win streak.
They lost a high-scoring free-for-all to Missouri, then beat Oklahoma State in two of three games last weekend. They have all but assured themselves a spot in the Big Ten Conference Tournament and placed themselves on the NCAA regional bubble.
All that’s left is a series this weekend at Northwestern and another one next weekend at home against Penn State. Those two are the worst two teams in the Big Ten.
Easy peasy, right?
“We have to focus on the big picture, and we all know we’re not good enough to just show up and beat anybody,” said Iowa Coach Rick Heller. “You have to play in this league every day, and if you don’t, you’re going to lose.”
Iowa (28-16, 9-7) has won 20 of its last 30 games despite some turbulence in its starting pitching rotation. Nick Allgeyer (5-4, 2.71 earned run average) has been incredibly consistent as the Hawkeyes’ ace, and he’ll get the nod Friday afternoon against Northwestern’s Quinn Lavelle (3-5, 4.79).
But Iowa has not listed a Saturday starter. Junior college transfer Brady Schanuel has taken most of those starts this season but has not been effective of late and has a 5.84 season earned run average.
Cole McDonald has been Iowa’s Sunday guy but he is injured. Freshman Jack Dreyer, who threw well last weekend against Oklahoma State, is expected to start against Northwestern.
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“It doesn’t matter if it’s this league or any league in general. It’s baseball. The starting pitcher is a big deal, and that changes every game,” said Iowa pitching coach Desi Druschel. “Very seriously, and I know everybody says it, but every team in the league can beat everybody else. To me, that’s the beauty of baseball.”
Iowa’s offense has been very good of late, led by the big two of catcher Tyler Cropley and right fielder Robert Neustrom. Cropley has come out of nowhere in a sense and leads the Hawkeyes with a .383 batting average and 43 RBIs.
Neustrom is at .333, with a team-best 10 homers. Iowa has scored 56 runs in its last six games.
Northwestern (14-28, 4-17) has lost four in a row and has, by far, the worst earned run average in the Big Ten at 6.20.
“We have to keep our focus,” Heller said. “If anyone thinks that just because we finished the gauntlet part of our schedule, it’s going to be easier, you’re sadly mistaken because those guys are going to be coming for us and we better play our best.”
“These last two series are as big as anything,” said Iowa’s Chris Whelan. “You can’t take those guys lightly.”
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