Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide. To receive daily news from the Iowa Hawkeyes, sign up HERE.
By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Chris Whelan believed he could carve out a role with the University of Iowa baseball team when he arrived as a recruited walk-on, but he has been much more than a role player.
Whelan, a redshirt sophomore from Naperville, Illinois, started Iowa’s first 38 games of the season, where he is fourth on the team with a .319 batting average as Iowa’s leadoff hitter. He has scored 26 runs and posted 11 extra-base hits (seven doubles, four home runs).
“I figured I would come in and have a little role,” said Whelan. “I didn’t know I would be starting and didn’t have a clue as to the impact I would be making. It’s kind of a wild story; I am blessed because I didn’t foresee this as a possibility a year ago.”
At this time last season, Whelan was wrapping up a one-year stint at Parkland College in Illinois. It followed a one-year, injury-plagued season at Bradley — a situation that left his baseball future in question.
“I had a normal first semester at Bradley, but when I got back for the second semester, I got pretty sick,” said Whelan. “They chalked it up to a virus, but it sidelined me for a month. I lost track of things and my body was weak when I tried coming back. Then I injured my shoulder.
“(After the season) I wanted to start anew. I didn’t know if I was going to play baseball (in 2016) or ever again because it was such a poor experience.”
Whelan’s high school coach connected him with the coaches at Parkland. He became the team’s every day second baseman, where he batted close to .300 and posted a .420 on-base percentage. He struck out just 17 times in 134 at-bats.
“When we recruited him, we were looking to pick up a bat that could help us survive the (graduation) losses from last season,” said Iowa head coach Rick Heller. “He has been one of our top players all year and the job Chris has done in the leadoff spot has been a factor in the success we have had.”
Whelan isn’t a prototypical leadoff hitter from a raw speed or a stolen base standpoint, but he gets on base. He is fourth on the team with 44 hits and has a team-high 22 walks and six hit-by-pitches this season. His .431 on-base percentage is tops on the team and tied for seventh in the Big Ten.
“We needed someone who had a high on-base percentage, who would be disciplined enough to draw walks and find a way to get on base in front of Mason McCoy, Jake Adams, and Robert Neustrom,” said Heller. “Chris has done that; he has done a great job offensively.”
Last weekend, the Hawkeyes posted their first Big Ten weekend sweep since 2015 when they took all three games from Penn State, moving the team into a four-way tie for third place in the conference standings. Whelan believes the weekend performance can be a catalyst into the final 10-game stretch of the regular season.
“Last weekend against Penn State was a blessing,” said Whelan. “Not because of the sweep, but because of the conditions we were playing in. It’s tough for any team to win three games in 35-degree weather with the wind blowing in your face.
“Mental toughness becomes a big factor. That will help us going into these final weeks of the Big Ten; we’re gelling at the right time and it could help us get hot at the right time.”