Feb. 11, 2016
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By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The 2016 University of Iowa baseball team hasn’t won 41 games, finished runner-up in the Big Ten Conference, and advanced to an NCAA Regional.
Coaches and players stress that this is a new day, but lessons learned and experience gained from the historic run in 2015 could lead to more success for the Hawkeyes.
In 2015, Iowa finished 41-18 overall, 19-5 in the Big Ten, and won twice at the NCAA Regional in Springfield, Missouri.
“This year’s team is different — a different group of guys, different leaders,” UI head coach Rick Heller said Thursday at Media Day in the Stew and LeNore Hansen Football Performance Center. “But the foundation was laid by the seniors who left last year and I think this team is fired up to go out and play and see where we’re at. We’re trying to take the program forward, that’s obviously always going to be the goal.”
Gone from the Hawkeye lineup are Eric Toole (centerfield), Jake Mangler (second base), Kris Goodman (left field), Nick Day (third base), Dan Potempa (designated hitter), Blake Hickman (Saturday starting pitcher), and Nick Hibbing (closer).
But the Hawkeyes return 52 percent of its RBIs from 2015, 46 percent of its runs, 45 percent of its hits, and 43 percent of its doubles. Also back for Iowa are two of its three weekend starting pitchers in seniors Tyler Peyton (7-4, 3.03 ERA) and Calvin Mathews (5-3, 2.45). Peyton was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the 33rd round of the 2015 MLB Draft and his return to the Hawkeyes was a huge black and gold surprise.
“(Peyton’s return is) extremely important,” Heller said. “It was something none of us thought would happen. It’s a huge bonus for us getting one of the best players in the Big Ten and the country to come back to school. That completely changes the dynamics of what this year would have been without him.”
As Iowa’s first baseman and No. 3 hitter, Peyton batted .337 in 52 games with 13 extra-base hits and 31 RBIs. On the mound, the right-hander logged a team-high 95 innings with 74 strikeouts.
“Tyler stuck to his guns and he said it was worth it to come back to school, get his degree, help this team get better, get to Omaha (site of the College World Series), and do things we didn’t do last year,” Heller said. “We are very happy Tyler made that extremely mature, unselfish decision.”
Peyton will pitch Friday, the Saturday starter is a battle between sophomore C.J. Eldred, junior Ryan Erickson (4-1, 2.79), and sophomore Nick Gallagher (0-0, 2.18), and Mathews will throw Sunday.
“We want to go out there and play the baseball we’re capable of,” Mathews said. “We have a lot of guys that can play at the highest level. We’re ready. Coach Heller is pushing us to our limits to become a better team.”
“This year’s team is different — a different group of guys, different leaders. But the foundation was laid by the seniors who left last year and I think this team is fired up to go out and play and see where we’re at. We’re trying to take the program forward, that’s obviously always going to be the goal.”
UI baseball coach
Seniors Mathews, Tyler Radtke, Jimmy Frankos, and Nick Roscetti are team captains. Roscetti was one of three Hawkeyes to hit better than .300 (.303) a year ago and his 27 RBIs were fourth on the team.
“Last year’s team set a good foundation for this year,” Roscetti said. “That’s the past, now we’re trying to take it one game at a time and build off that season. We’re going to try to play the game hard and hopefully success will come with that.”
UI junior Corbin Woods saw action in 15 games in 2015, playing behind Day at third base; he shouldn’t have to go deep into the season before he matches the six at-bats he had.
“Last year I learned what it takes to play at this level,” Woods said. “Nick Day was a great player along with the other seniors and they taught me what it takes to be a Hawkeye and what it takes to play in the Big Ten Conference and Division I level. I always take that with me.”
Iowa’s 2015 recruiting class is ranked as the best in the Big Ten. Heller expects several newcomers to make an immediate impact.
“There are a lot of guys fighting for spots at this point and Zach Daniels has played extremely well from Cedar Rapids Kennedy,” Heller said. “I think Zach will have a role on the mound and I think he will help us out as a position player as well.
“Robert Neustrom from Sioux City North has played very well this fall and early season indoors. I think you will see Robert get a lot of at bats and have a pretty big role with this team. There are a lot of guys: Sam Lizarraga — all those guys are doing a good job and fighting for sports. Mitchell Boe has done a nice job in the infield. I think you will see some of those freshmen step in right away and get some at bats and innings on the mound.”
The Hawkeyes open the season Feb. 19-21 with a three game series at Dallas Baptist. Last season the Patriots won 46 games and went 3-2 at the NCAA Dallas Regional. The first home game is scheduled for March 8 against Northwestern (Iowa) College.