CEDAR RAPIDS — Izaya Fullard has battled injury and illness this season.
He played through the former, while the latter caused him to miss a couple games earlier this week. The Iowa sophomore returned to the starting lineup and looked healthy again.
Fullard went 2-for-4 and belted a three-run home run, propelling the Hawkeyes to a 6-1 victory over Rutgers in the opener of a three-game Big Ten Conference baseball series Friday night at Duane Banks Field.
The sixth-inning shot was his second this season and first at home.
“It was special,” said Fullard, a former Iowa City West all-stater who played for Kirkwood last season. “I’ve always wanted to be a Hawk. To be able to hit my first home run here, especially in a game like this Big Ten Conference play, it’s kind of a dream come true.”
Fullard had fought through getting hit on the hand, but then missed the final game of last weekend’s sweep of Illinois and a non-conference game against Clarke Tuesday. He was a reserve Wednesday, but the time off may have helped him heal.
“Unfortunately, he got sick on Sunday, but those three or four days off not doing much, I think, really allowed his hand to heal up,” Iowa Coach Rick Heller said. I think his hand is feeling better than it has in a long time.”
Iowa starter Cole McDonald and Rutgers’ Harry Rutkowski were engaged in a pitchers’ duel through 5 1/2 innings. Iowa finally got on the board after Chris Whelan’s one-out single, a Mitchell Boe walk and Austin Martin’s RBI double to bring in Whelan.
Fullard, who had stranded runners hitting into the first of two inning-ending double plays by Rutgers, provided timely power, belting a 1-1 pitch 395 feet over the scoreboard in left center for a 4-0 lead.
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“I kind of looked for my pitch,” Fullard said. “I knew we had guys on second and third, so I just wanted to get the ball in the outfield. I put a good swing on it and fortunate enough for it to go out.”
Fullard has been a strong addition to the Hawkeye lineup. He had a nine-game hit streak snapped after just one plate appearance against Illinois State on Wednesday. He increased his average by almost 10 points, climbing to .298 with 12 RBIs.
“Izaya is a great hitter,” Heller said. “He’s a clutch hitter.
“That’s why we wanted Izaya here is he’s a really good hitter. I think as the weather warms up you’ll see his bat warm up as well.”
Iowa padded its lead in the seventh. Matthew Sosa was able to beat out Rutgers’ attempt at a third inning-ending double play. Whelan walked and Boe added a two-run double to right center, increasing the lead to 6-0.
“It makes it a lot easier to score runs when you start getting extra-base hits,” Heller said. “We haven’t been doing a whole lot of that lately, so that was a real positive.”
McDonald managed another quality start in his second-longest outing of the season. He pitched 6 1/3 innings, striking out eight batters for his second win.
“I felt really good,” McDonald said. “I knew they weren’t the best hitting team. My goal was just to go out there and pound the zone with all of my pitches. I know I had three walks, but for the most part I felt I was being pretty effective. I was working both sides of the plate, mixing up speeds, and I think that’s what helped made me effective tonight, especially to get out of some situations I put myself in.”
Even though he allowed runners on each inning, McDonald buckled down to strand runners and lowered his earned-run average to 4.30. The Hawkeyes defense helped, turning a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play with two on base in the third.
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“Cole did a great job, too,” Heller said. “Gave us a good start. Hitters really battled with two strikes. Got a lot of two-strike hits and put us in some jams that Cole was able to work out of. Played good defense tonight.
“We finally got a knock.”
Trace Hoffman closed the game with 2 2/3 innings of relief. Fullard, Whelan and Martin each had two hits to lead Iowa (17-11, 4-3).
Rutgers is 8-18 overall and 1-3 in the conference, entering Saturday’s game at 2:05 p.m.
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