UNLEASH HELLER: IOWA BASEBALL OFF TO RED HOT START

Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Party like it's 1985!

Spring training is getting underway for the professionals (just a few more months 'til Cubs fan start dreaming of next year!), but college baseball has been pitchin' and battin' for a few weeks now.  More importantly, Iowa baseball has been doing their thing for a few weeks -- and they're good.  Like, really good.  After Friday's 5-1 win over Stetson, Iowa sits at 7-1 (!) on the season so far.  That's Iowa's best start since 1985, when they started 8-1 on the way to 40 wins.  Not a bad start at all for new Iowa coach Rick Heller.

Iowa opened the season with a three-game series at Austin Peay; they won the first two games, 11-5 and 15-13 (!), before losing a lead in the third game and dropping a 7-4 contest.  Since then, though, the Hawkeyes have rattled off five straight wins.  They went 4-0 at the Snowbird Classic -- a perfect event for a group of Iowans -- last weekend, dropping Mississippi Valley State 9-4, St. Bonaventure 2-0, Ball State 16-6, and Nebraska-Omaha 7-1.

What's going well for the Hawkeyes?  What isn't going well, really?  But the biggest factor in Iowa's early season success appears to be their bats: the Hawkeys are absolutely mashing the ball right now.  Here's one telling stat: after hitting a grand total of two home runs all season last year, Iowa has already mashed six dingers in their first eight games this year.  But their other hitting stats are pretty gaudy too:

The Hawkeyes are leading the Big Ten in slugging percentage (.444), on-base percentage (.409), runs (64) -- 17 more than second-place Nebraska -- RBIs (54), home runs (6), doubles (18), total bases (112) and stolen bases (17). Iowa also has the third-best team batting average at .294.

Iowa's hottest hitter so far has been Tyler Zeutenhorst, who was absolutely destroying opposing pitches at the Snowbird Classic: .442 batting average, .765 slugging, .500 OBP.  Not surprisingly, he also earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors -- Iowa's first such honoree since 2012.

Zeutenhorst isn't even the best hitter on the team, though.  That would be the wonderfully-named Jake Mangler, who's hitting .424 with a .515 slugging percentage, and .486 OBP.  Regrettably, despite having a name like Mangler he doesn't appear to be one of Iowa's biggest power threats -- he has none of Iowa's six home runs so far this year (though he does have three doubles already).

They're also a terror on the bases -- Iowa had a B1G-best 17 steals before the game with Stetson and added three to that tally tonight.  Jake Yacinich is the main threat for the Hawkeyes, with seven steals in eight attempts so far.

But the pitching hasn't been too shabby, either.  Entering tonight, Iowa had a B1G-best 67 strikeouts and averaged 9.6 Ks per game.   (That torrid strikeout pace cooled down a bit against Stetson -- just two strikeouts.)   Three of Iowa's four main pitchers have ERAs below 3.00 and as a team their ERA is 3.30.  As noted, Iowa has 69 strikeouts against 32 walks and opposing batters are hitting just .225.

Mind you, we should also note that some of the teams Iowa's playing are not, shall we say, very good.  Stetson entered tonight's game hitting .175 and had scored 14 runs total in 8 games.  Not surprisingly, they were 2-6 before tonight.  Incidentally, yes Stetson does have a delightful pun-themed nickname -- the Hatters -- and they do incorporate a hat into their logo.  Wonderful.

Stetson_logo_medium

The other teams on deck at this weekend's Stetson Invitational are not very good, either -- Maine (Saturday's opponent) is 1-5 and Furman (Sunday's foe) is 3-5.  So we probably shouldn't read too much into these early wins. But hey: wins are wins, especially for a team that's far more accustomed to losing games in bunches than winning games regularly.  It's far too soon to know how Iowa will do in the Big Ten this year, but this is certainly a very promising start.  We'll take it.

* * *

We'll do what we can do cover Iowa baseball with greater regularity than we've done in the past -- especially since this seems like a pretty fun team to follow -- but we could use some help, too.  This is where you come in.  Are you able to follow Iowa baseball closely? Do you like baseball?  More importantly, do you like writing about baseball?  If so, we'd love to have you at BHGP.  Drop me a line at bhgp.rosswb-at-gmail.com if you're interested.

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