By JAMES ALLAN
HOUSTON, Texas — Top-seeded and 15th-ranked Houston broke a five-all tie with two runs in the top of the ninth inning to hand the University of Iowa baseball team a season-ending 7-5 loss in the NCAA Houston Regional on Sunday night at Schroeder Park.
“This was a hard fought game, I am proud of our guys,” said UI head coach Rick Heller. “It looked like a game where it looked like we were going to get it done.
“We let them back in every time we did something and unfortunately, we didn’t have enough to hold on. Our best guy was out there in that situation and he went after them, they hit it and we lost.”
The two teams were tied at four through seven innings before the Cougars took a 5-4 lead in the top of the eighth. After Grayson Padgett drew a leadoff walk and moved into scoring position on a wild pitch, Lael Lockhart gave Houston a one-run advantage, lining a single to centerfield.
Iowa evened the game in the bottom half when junior Jake Adams led off the inning with a solo blast deep to left field. Houston went to reliever Brayson Hurdsman after the home run and he retired the Hawkeyes 1-2-3 to send the game to the ninth in a deadlock.
“I hit a big home run in that situation,” said Adams, who finishes the season with 29 home runs — an Iowa and Big Ten Conference record and the most in the NCAA in 2017. “When I came back to the dugout everybody was pumped up and I thought that was going to be the turning point, but we couldn’t get anything going after that.”
Houston’s Connor Wong turned the momentum in the Cougars’ favor when he belted the first pitch of the ninth over the batter’s eye in center field to give his team a 6-5 lead. With two outs, Houston added to its lead with back-to-back hits, including a run-scoring double from Padgett to make the score 7-5.
“It was the situation we wanted, the right guy was there,” said Heller of Martsching, who had not surrendered a run in the postseason before Sunday. “The guy has meant a lot to the program, he has been through it all in his career and pitched amazing this whole season.
“I didn’t have anybody else that I would have gone to in that situation other than Josh.”
Iowa brought the tying run to the plate in its final at-bat after Ben Norman singled with one out, but Hurdsman struck out Mitchell Boe looking and got Chris Whelan to pop out to short to end the game.
Houston jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the third when Lockhart doubled to lead off the inning before scoring on a Wong sacrifice fly to center field. After a slow start, Iowa’s bats awoke in the fifth.
With one out, the Hawkeyes strung together five straight hits to take the momentum. Junior Tyler Cropley tripled to start the rally before freshman Grant Judkins singled him home to tie the game. Matt Hoeg and Ben Norman followed with back-to-back singles to load the bases before Boe had an infield RBI single and Whelan was hit by starter Mitch Ullom to make the score 3-1.
Houston’s Joey Pulido entered with the bases loaded and kept the damage at a minimum. He struck out Mason McCoy looking for the second out and got Adams to fly out to center field to end the inning and strand three.
“We scored three and left the bases loaded and then turned around and gave up three in the top of the inning,” said Heller. “You can’t do that if you’re going to win a game like this against a good team like Houston.”
The Cougars matched Iowa with a three-spot in the sixth, scoring three runs on four hits against three Iowa pitchers. Houston had three straight hits to start the inning, including an RBI double by Corey Julks and Padgett welcomed reliever Nick Nelsen to the game with a two-run single to center field to give Houston the 4-3 lead.
Iowa tied the game in bottom of the inning when sophomore Robert Neustrom doubled down the left field line to start the inning, moved to third on a wild pitch, and scored on a Judkins RBI groundout.
Robison went five innings in the start, allowing four runs on six hits and punching out four. Martsching (5-1) suffered his first loss of the season, allowing two runs on three hits over 1 1/3 innings.
Eight of Iowa’s nine starters had at least one hit in the game. Norman went 2-for-4 in the game, while Judkins had two RBIs.
Iowa finishes the 2017 season with a 39-22 record — the fifth-most wins in a single-season in program history. The Hawkeyes won the Big Ten Tournament title for the first time in its history and advanced to their second NCAA Regional in three seasons.
“We’re right here where we’re supposed to be,” said Adams. “We competed with an SEC team and an AAC team; I wouldn’t change it for anything. A couple of plays and hits here and there and we’re going to a Super Regional.”