CEDAR RAPIDS — You couldn’t really blame Rick Heller for being hesitant to embrace the topic of conversation.
“It’s honestly something you really don’t want to talk about, because it can turn in a hurry,” the University of Iowa baseball coach said.
But with this particular Hawkeyes team, you have to talk about success in close games. It’s the reason it has the record it does.
Iowa goes into its final home series of the season, against Michigan State, at 29-17. The Hawkeyes are in fourth place in the Big Ten Conference (11-7 record) and have played themselves into a position where they could be a NCAA Tournament qualifier even if they don’t win the upcoming Big Ten tournament in Omaha, Neb.
Their stats don’t necessarily mirror the record. Iowa ranks fourth out of 13 Big Ten teams in batting average and is eighth in earned run average.
It has won 12 more games overall than it has lost yet has a season run differential of only plus-15. It’s plus-1 in conference games.
So how is Iowa on the verge of a 30-win season? Well, it has a 10-4 record in games decided by one run and a 17-6 record in games decided by one or two runs.
Boom, there you go. Good teams find a way.
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“The first thing is it starts with your pitching,” Heller said. “ We’ve been getting great starts on the weekends from our starters, but Trace Hoffman and Grant Leonard have been lights out at closing games. Then we’ve had guys really step up late in games offensively (who have) gotten the two-out hit or gotten the hit to score the winning run. That’s as simple as that.”
Senior Cole McDonald has developed into that dependable Friday starter, with Grant Judkins and Cam Baumann the Saturday-Sunday guys. Leonard is closing in on the school single-season saves record with 12, while Hoffman has a 5-1 record as Iowa’s other primary late-inning reliever.
It has been a rotation of guys who have provided the late-game clutch hit.
“Once things start going your way,” Heller said. “A couple of guys go out there and get it done, it definitely helps with your confidence. But I think the biggest thing is just focusing on the process and just playing. So many people change how they go about their business when the game gets out of hand or gets close late or when there’s a pressure situation.
“But if you just go out and play, and you’re not really worried about results, then usually good things happen. That’s what we try and instill in our guys. Some teams take it and run with it, some teams struggle with it. This team has done a really good job of just focusing on the next pitch, playing the game and not getting too caught up in what’s going on around them, what you can’t control.”
Heller said he is concerned about a disjointed week of preparation for his team because of final exams. Michigan State (17-30 overall) is in 12th place in the Big Ten Conference but has won nine of its last 12 games.
Game times are 6:05 p.m. Friday, 2:05 Saturday and 1:05 Sunday. The regular season concludes next week with a midweek game at Western Illinois and a weekend series at Maryland.
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