By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — University of Iowa head coach Rick Heller was able to acknowledge his team’s progress when the final out was recorded at team’s Black & Gold Fall World Series.
Iowa came together, winning both of its fall exhibition contests, while incorporating a group of 15 newcomers into the Hawkeye baseball culture.
“I felt like we had accomplished everything we wanted to this fall,” said Heller, who has led Iowa to the Big Ten Tournament in each of his five seasons. “I like the strides we made heading into the offseason. It has us in a better place than we have been the last couple of years when offseason workouts started.
“This group has come together quicker than a lot of teams have. The chemistry is good and we have renewed our commitment to our culture.”
Offensively, the transition was smooth with first-year hitting coach Joe Migliaccio and the pitching continued evolving under second-year pitching coach Desi Druschel.
“Coach Migliaccio did a good job meshing with our hitters and the strides we made offensively were big this fall,” said Heller. “Coach Druschel got the pitchers to come together and they showed a lot of improvement from the get go.”
Heller was impressed with the growth of outfielder Connor McCaffery. After redshirting last season, McCaffery showed flashes in all facets of the game. He had six hits in a scrimmage against the Ontario Blue Jays to start the fall and hit a walk-off home run in game one of the Black & Gold World Series.
“He was healthy and strong,” said Heller. “He had a rough year last year with sickness, injury, and a lot of bad luck. It never allowed him to get into a flow or rhythm.
“He was one of our best hitters the entire fall; he improved his game defensively both in the outfield and at first base, and his throwing improved. Overall, Connor had a good fall.”
Heller was also encouraged with the performances of junior college transfers Austin Martin, Tanner Padgett, and Izaya Fullard.
“Austin established himself as a leader and hard worker,” said Heller. “He made big strides offensively. Tanner, coming off a hand injury in his sophomore year of junior college, put in extra time and was establishing himself as the hitter we thought we were going to get when we signed him before the injury.
“Izaya had an outstanding fall offensively and he worked hard to improve his defense as an infielder.”
After having up-and-down 2018 seasons, Heller liked the improvements he saw from senior Tanner Wetrich and junior Ben Norman. Wetrich has the inside track to being Iowa’s starting shortstop in 2019.
“Tanner settled in and had a good fall after having a tough season,” said Heller. “I look for big things out of him this season. Ben did nice things with his swing and we’re encouraged with where he’s at.”
After losing Friday starter Nick Allgeyer to the MLB Draft, Heller has seen Cole McDonald take a step toward filling that role. McDonald went 3-2 with a 3.23 ERA as a junior in 11 starts. Heading into 2019, his velocity is up and his off-speed effectiveness has improved.
Heller also was pleased with the growth of junior right-hander Grant Judkins and sophomore southpaw Cam Baumann — two potential weekend starters.
“Grant did a nice job this fall and he competed,” said Heller. “Cam established himself as a legit contender for a weekend starter spot. I am happy with both of their progress.”
With a little under four months until the season opener in Kissimmee, Florida, Heller calls the stretch from now until winter break the most important of the year.
“This is the time for our guys to get after it to get stronger, faster, and more agile,” said Heller. “The goal is for them to be in the best shape of their lives before the season begins.
“This period is crucial, especially for this team because for us to have the success we’re accustomed to or to take it a step further, we have to be a true team. Everybody has to be on the same page and everybody has to be ready to perform at their highest level.
“They are on their way to doing that, but the next two months are crucial to setting the standard for the 2019 season.”