Iowa Hawkeyes

Iowa's Cole McDonald provides strong start in return from injury

Hawkeye starter threw four scoreless innings in first appearance since April 29

Iowa Hawkeyes pitcher Cole McDonald (11) delivers the ball to the plate against the Penn State Nittany Lions Friday, May 18, 2018 at Duane Banks Field. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)
Iowa Hawkeyes pitcher Cole McDonald (11) delivers the ball to the plate against the Penn State Nittany Lions Friday, May 18, 2018 at Duane Banks Field. (Brian Ray/hawkeyesports.com)

IOWA CITY — Iowa pitcher Cole McDonald needed this start and the Hawkeyes needed this kind of outing from him.

The junior right-hander had missed his previous two starts due to soreness in his throwing elbow. Not only is McDonald an important piece to the current staff, but a potential leader on the mound for the Hawkeyes next season.

McDonald’s first appearance in almost three weeks went as well as could be expected. He tossed four scoreless innings and struck out seven in Iowa’s 9-1 victory over Penn State in a Big Ten Conference contest Friday night at Duane Banks Field.

“I felt pretty good,” McDonald said. “I had a little bit of adrenaline going so that definitely helped the (velocity) but it just felt good to be back on the mound.

“It felt like forever, but it was only two weeks. It felt good to be back, compete and be with the guys again. I know the guys were kind of happy to have me back on the mound.”

McDonald (3-1) took the mound for the first time since leaving his start against Michigan on April 29 with elbow tightness. The rest of his season seemed to be uncertain as he underwent examinations. McDonald had Tommy John surgery in high school and braced himself for bad news.

“I was expecting the worst-case scenario,” McDonald said. “It just didn’t feel good. I had the surgery in high school and it felt the same way when I hurt it then ...

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“I was definitely happy when the MRI came back and it was all good to go. Once I started throwing a few days after and there wasn’t any pain I knew it wasn’t a tear. It didn’t feel the same way. I was really happy with that. I’m good to go.”

The rest of the Hawkeyes were relieved when tests didn’t reveal any serious damage to his already repaired elbow. Iowa Coach Rick Heller said the team was scared and sad about McDonald’s prognosis, knowing his history.

The staff was able to identify the issue, treat it and then implement a patient approach in his rehab, even though it was tempting to bring him back sooner than Friday.

“I’m really pleased it wasn’t,” Heller said. “Our team doctors did a really nice job figuring out what was going on and getting it diagnosed quickly.

“He’s a hard worker. He’s diligent about everything he does, so he did everything he needed to do to make sure he could get back.”

McDonald was impressive, facing two batters in the fifth and coming out after hitting his pitch-count limit. He retired 11 straight batters during one stretch. He allowed just one hit and walked two before being relieved by Grant Judkins (1-0), who threw six innings of two-hit relief. They combined for a season-high 15 strikeouts.

“Super happy for Cole,” Heller said. “I don’t think he had any problems at all with how his elbow felt.

“Grant did a nice job of closing the game out.”

McDonald worked ahead for most of the first four innings. He threw just 64 total pitches, including 43 for strikes.

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“I felt pretty good about just throwing my fastball,” McDonald said. “I didn’t think any of their hitters were going to touch it, especially when I looked up and saw my (velocity) was where it was at. I felt pretty good.

“I was just going to throw it in there and if they hit it they hit it. If they don’t, they don’t. I’ll just challenge them.”

McDonald said his arm was more relaxed, benefiting from the rest. He threw harder than normal, hitting 94 miles per hour on the radar gun.

“I definitely think he was better than he was beforehand,” Iowa senior catcher Tyler Cropley said. “I think that little break is going to benefit him down the road.

“He had all of his pitches working and his fastball was coming out with a lot of life.”

Iowa (32-18, 12-9) broke open a scoreless game with five runs in the fifth. Mitchell Boe sparked the rally with a one-out single, leading to four straight singles. Iowa sent 10 batters to the plate in the frame. Cropley and Matt Hoeg each ripped two-run singles. Austin Guzzo scored on a wild pitch for a 5-0 edge.

Cropley added a bases-loaded double in the four-run seventh, giving him five RBIs and Iowa a 9-1 lead.

Boe recorded his first three-hit game of the season, smacking two doubles. He reached safely for the 35th game and notched his 10th multi-hit game this season.

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“Cropley continues to have a big, big year,” Heller said. “Matt Hoeg had a nice hit to put us on the board and Mitch Boe had a real nice night.”

Iowa and Penn State (15-33, 3-20) will close the series and the regular season Saturday, beginning at 6:30 p.m. The Hawkeyes have already secured a spot in the Big Ten tournament May 23-27.

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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