OMAHA, Neb. — It’s not often that Iowa’s hitters have stepped to the plate with the wind blowing in from center field at a pitcher-friendly ballpark while the early morning sun sprays its rays from an unfamiliar angle.
Junior Chris Whelan didn’t want to make any excuses afterward. The veteran infielder said he and his teammates knew what they were getting into Wednesday.
But Coach Rick Heller was convinced that the new setting influenced his team’s approach. How else do you explain an uncharacteristic performance on a day so critical to Iowa’s faint NCAA Tournament hopes?
The sixth-seeded Hawkeyes (33-19) managed just one hit in a 2-1 10-inning loss to No. 3-seed Michigan in their Big Ten tournament opener Wednesday morning at TD Ameritrade Park.
They had just five base runners — and none after the fourth inning. Their lone run was the result of a two-out error on a routine grounder in the second.
“A lot of those guys, it was their first time being here,” Heller said of TD Ameritrade Park, the home of the College World Series. “It’s tough to hit, especially in the morning. ... I think it affected both teams. It was a tough day to hit.”
He noted, too, that Iowa did not get to take batting practice on the field Tuesday (the players took their swings from the stadium’s indoor cages). Both Heller and Michigan Coach Erik Bakich said both teams looked nervous early.
But Iowa just never settled in.
ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT
Wednesday was the first time under Heller that the Hawkeyes finished a game with fewer than three hits.
The Wolverines (34-19) didn’t threaten much, either. They only put two runners in scoring position over the first nine innings against junior starter Nick Allgeyer and junior reliever Zach Daniels.
But Daniels tossed eight straight balls with one out in the 10th. An infield single loaded the bases — the bang-bang call at first was close, and Heller did leave the dugout to argue with the umpires. Two pitches later, though, the game was over.
Michigan won it on a walk-off sacrifice fly, sending Iowa to the league tournament’s losers’ bracket.
“It was just a frustrating day,” Heller said, “but (we’ll) try not to make too big a deal out of it because we’ve got to bounce back (Thursday) morning.”
Heller said he doesn’t think Iowa, with an RPI ranking of No. 66 heading into Wednesday’s action, necessarily needs to win the Big Ten Tournament to earn an NCAA regional bid. But the Hawkeyes do need to make a run here in Omaha, he said.
They won this event last year. They played for the championship in 2016.
They’d have to win four elimination games in three days to reach this year’s title game. They face No. 7 seed Ohio State at 9 a.m. Thursday (junior Cole McDonald is expected to start for Iowa).
“At this point, it’s survival mode,” Whelan said. “It’s win or go home.”