By CHRIS BREWER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Don’t change a thing. That’s the message University of Iowa head baseball coach Rick Heller is sending to his team as the Hawkeyes prepare for the opening round of the 2017 Big Ten Tournament.
“That’s the big thing,” Heller said Monday at Duane Banks Field. “If you try to make a big deal out of it, it usually backfires and flops, so you just need to keep playing and do the things that you’ve done all year.”
The Hawkeyes take a 34-19 record into the postseason and have won four straight conference series. They finished tied for fourth place with a 15-9 Big Ten record and are seeded fifth at the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa’s opponent is No. 4 Maryland (33-19, 15-9). The teams meet for the first time this season Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. (CT) at Bart Kaufman Field in Bloomington, Indiana.
The No. 4 vs. No. 5 pairing sets up a first round matchup that features the league’s top pitcher against the league’s top hitter.
Maryland right-hander Brian Shaffer leads the Big Ten in earned run average and innings pitches, and ranks second in strikeouts. He’ll throw to an Iowa lineup that includes first baseman Jake Adams, who leads the conference with a school-record 24 home runs.
“We’re facing Shaffer, who will probably be pitcher of the year and a guy that we haven’t had great success with since we’ve been here,” Heller said. “He’s tough. We know going in we have to play a clean game and eliminate free bases.”
The Hawkeyes have won five of their last seven games against Maryland, including an 11-0 win in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament a year ago. But their two losses during that seven-game stretch have been against Shaffer.
Heller aims to buck that trend by sending staff ace Nick Gallagher to the mound. The right-hander is tied for the league lead with eight wins and ranks sixth with a 2.59 ERA.
“It’s probably going to be a low scoring game with Gallagher and Shaffer on the mound and we know we have to take advantage of the chances we get,” Heller said.
The double-elimination tournament starts Wednesday and continues until the championship on Sunday.
The first pitch of the tournament is Wednesday at 9 a.m. when No. 3 Minnesota takes on sixth-seeded Indiana. Second-seeded Michigan faces No. 7 Northwestern at 12:30. Big Ten champion Nebraska plays No. 8 Purdue at 4 p.m. and the Hawkeyes wrap Day 1 with a 7:30 p.m. start time. BTN is televising every game of the tournament on the network and the BTN2Go platform.
“Anybody in the tournament is good enough to win the league, it’s just the way the league is now,” Heller said. “We’re going to go into it with the same approach we’ve had for every game we’ve played this season and try to play the best baseball that we can.”