April 13, 2015
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By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — So far, so good for head coach Rick Heller and University of Iowa baseball program.
The Hawkeyes have won 23 games through the first nine weeks of the 2015 season, including eight in Big Ten play. It’s a feat in itself considering Iowa has been away from the friendly (renovated) confines of Duane Banks Field for nearly 80 percent (25-of-32) of its games this season.
“That’s pretty impressive,” said Heller, who has Iowa ranked in six different collegiate baseball polls, including a No. 14 ranking by Collegiate Baseball. “It’s not easy, and unless you’ve gone through it people don’t realize how hard it is.
“You’re playing 3-4 games (a weekend), you leave Thursday, get back in the middle of the night late Sunday or early Monday morning, go to class, and do it all again. It has been eight of nine weeks; for our guys to survive that to this point is pretty amazing.”
Heading into last weekend’s series at 16th-ranked Maryland, Heller was worried the extended travel might catch up to the Hawkeyes. His worries seemed substantiated when the Terrapins handed Iowa its first Big Ten loss — 10-1 on April 10 — but to the team’s credit, it didn’t faze them.
Iowa rode its pitching and defense to a series victory in College Park. Junior Blake Hickman and senior Nick Hibbing were superb in a 3-1 victory on April 11 before juniors Calvin Mathews, Ryan Erickson, and Luke Vandermaten led the Hawkeyes to win their third Big Ten series (sixth series overall) win with a 2-1 Sunday victory, giving Iowa a Big Ten-leading 8-1 record.
“It speaks to the team’s toughness and character,” said Heller. “It’s not easy when you take a good beating Friday to bounce back that quickly, especially against a top team. Our guys were able to flush it; they’ve done a good job of playing in the present and not let what has happened in the past effect the future.”
The Iowa pitching staff held down a potent Maryland offense for the final two games. After scoring 10 in game one, the Terrapins — who entered the weekend averaging 7.4 runs per game for the season — finished with two runs on 10 hits over the final 18 innings.
“When you pitch like we did on Saturday and Sunday, you’re always going to have a chance,” said Heller.
The Hawkeyes’ pitching has been superb, posting a 2.92 ERA, while giving up the fewest runs (108) and hits (235) in the Big Ten. With the offense being hot and cold, Iowa has found ways to win games, but Heller is optimistic the bats will heat up with the spring weather.
“We’re not scoring a lot of runs, so our pitching and defense have really picked us up,” said Heller. “We keep talking that if we stay positive and keep working, the bats will come alive as the weather warms up. We’ll put it all together at the right time because you want to be playing your best baseball in the next couple of months.”
With the buzz surrounding the Hawkeyes, Heller continues to stay level-headed because it’s the foundation the program is being built on.
“We don’t focus on things like (rankings) or what we can’t control,” said Heller. “From day one, we’ve talked about giving great effort every day, winning the day, and not focusing on what other people say, good or bad, just taking care of ourselves.
“We know we have a lot of baseball to play and there are a lot of great teams in the league, but we’ve put ourselves in a position that if we continue to play consistent baseball we’re going to have a chance to compete for championships.”
After playing at Bradley on Tuesday, that Hawkeyes begin a 10-game home stand by hosting Cornell College on Wednesday before welcoming Northwestern for a three-game series from April 17-19, Northern Illinois on April 22, Nebraska for three games from April 24-26, and a doubleheader against Sacramento State on April 28.
“The early crowds have been fantastic,” said Heller. “I think the fans will come out this weekend and next against Nebraska. Win or lose, fans will be impressed with the effort and how we play the game. Our guys play hard and the right way; we hustle, fly around, and play an exciting brand of baseball.”