There have been myriad reasons for Iowa baseball's struggles this year, but one of the biggest reasons for Iowa's step back this season has been the starting pitching. Tyler Peyton and Calvin Mathews were capable starters a year ago for Iowa as they made their way to the NCAA Tournament, but both players have struggled considerably this year. As it turns out, they've both been badly hampered by injuries. We knew about Peyton's injury issues, but I wasn't fully aware of the extent of Mathews' injury problems until this article from Mark Emmert at Hawk Central:
This has been Mathews' life for four years, ever since he felt a popping sensation while throwing a routine warm-up pitch in the fall of his freshman season. His labrum torn (although that wouldn't be revealed for another year), the 6-foot-4 former star at Davis County High School has been on a diet of pain-numbing naproxen and ibuprofen ever since, working six days a week to strengthen the muscles in the shoulder to try to compensate for the frayed cartilage.
It has worked at times. Mathews threw 146 innings with a 2.59 ERA as a sophomore and junior, helping the Hawkeyes reach the NCAA Regionals in a magical season a year ago.
His senior season began with the most intense aching yet, which led to a cortisone shot to release him from the agony, but stripped him of the ability to locate his pitches. He has thrown only 31 innings, served up eight home runs and has a bulky 7.04 ERA heading into the final homestand of his Iowa career, Friday through Sunday, against Michigan State.
As his time in a Hawkeye uniform comes to a conclusion, it's fair to wonder whether fans should celebrate what Mathews was able to accomplish or lament what might have been.
"It's not the way I wanted to go out," the soft-spoken native of Bloomfield said. "But baseball's a cruel game."
I certainly have newfound respect for Mathews' attempt to deal with the injury and the accompanying pain and try to gut out some performances for Iowa. Mathews decided not to have surgery on his torn labrum due to the risk of not being able to pitch again. There are only a few more starts remaining in Mathews' Iowa career -- hopefully he can make the most of them and go out with a bit of glory.
Iowa opens up a three-game series with Michigan State this weekend that's also their home finale, meaning that it's the last chance for Iowa fans to see players like Peyton, Mathews, Nick Roscetti, Joel Booker, Jimmy Frankos, Daniel Aaron Moriel, and Eric Schenck-Joblinske. Those players have been instrumental in Iowa's turnaround over the last few years and many of them played key roles on last year's NCAA Tournament team. This season hasn't quite gone to plan, but thanks to their efforts, they leave Iowa baseball in a much, much better place than when they arrived.
Of course, this three-game series with Sparty is also critical for Iowa's (faint?) hopes of making the Big Ten Tournament. The top eight teams in the league make the tournament and Iowa currently sits at 10th, two games back of Maryland, Ohio State, and Penn State, and one game behind ninth-place Illinois at 9-9. They're not out of the picture, but they absolutely need to win some games. Iowa closes the season at Penn State and considering how much better Iowa has been at home (14-6) than on the road (4-14), it behooves them to make the most out of their last three home games this weekend.
MICHIGAN STATE TIDBITS
Sparty is a tough draw for a team desperately needing wins, though. MSU is 30-15 overall and 11-7 in the Big Ten, tied for 4th with Nebraska. They're looking to bolster their own resume for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. They enter this series with the Big Ten's third best team batting average (.298) and the best team ERA (2.52), although they've been slightly less dominant in Big Ten play (3.01 ERA). They do have a league-best three shutouts, though, which seems like an ominous sign after Iowa was shutout twice against Ohio State last weekend. Also an ominous sign? MSU pitchers lead the Big Ten in strikeouts (146), while Iowa batters are third in the league in strikeouts (131). Uh oh.
Four MSU batters are hitting over .300 this year, led by Jordan Zimmerman, who is having a monster season: .392 BA, .625 SLG, .476 OBP, 15 doubles, 8 HR, 45 runs, 31 RBI, 10 steals. Iowa might want to avoid pitching to him if at all possible. Dan Durkin is also having a fine season for Sparty, though: .345 BA, .485 SLG, .425 OBP, 8 doubles, 5 HR, 27 runs, 25 RBI. The Spartans don't have too many bad hitters in their regular lineup, though -- only one guy is batting lower than .260. Iowa is going to need some very strong pitching performances this weekend.
PITCHING MATCH-UPS AND INFO
Game One: Michigan State at Iowa -- Friday, May 13, 6 PM CT
Iowa: RHP C.J. Eldred (SO, 2-7, 3.36 ERA)
Michigan State: RHP Ethan Landon (SO, 6-2, 2.69 ERA)
Eldred's strong play early in the season has given way to some more ragged performances late on, but hopefully he can summon one more very good outing this weekend. MSU's best pitcher (Cam Vieaux, 6-3 with a 2.20 ERA and a 67:15 K:BB ratio) isn't even slated to pitch this weekend, but the guys they are sending out are still quite good. Landon has the second-best ERA on the team among their regular starters (2.69, good for 6th in the Big Ten), and he's held opposing hitters to a .255 average while striking out 46 batters and walking 25.
Game Two: Michigan State at Iowa -- Saturday, May 14, 2 PM CT
Iowa: RHP Tyler Peyton (SR, 2-5, 5.80 ERA)
Michigan State: LHP Joe Mockbee (JR, 2-0 2.70 ERA)
Peyton has had a rough season on the mound, but he produced an absolute gem last weekend, throwing seven shutout innings against Ohio State in Iowa's only win of the weekend. Dare we hope for a repeat performance? Damn right we dare. Mockbee has only started three games for MSU this season, but he's looked good in limited acting, posting a 2.70 ERA and holding opponents to a .246 average while striking out 46 and walking 13.
Game One: Michigan State at Iowa -- Sunday, May 15, 1 PM CT
Iowa: RHP Calvin Mathews (SR, 0-4, 7.04 ERA)
Michigan State: TBA
We covered Mathews up above, but I'll just repeat what I said there: it would be very sweet (and satisfying) if Mathews could have one final good outing in an Iowa uniform, especially in front of the home fans. Michigan State has not yet announced a starter for Sunday.
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN/FOLLOW ALONG
All three games will be streamed on BTN Plus, while all three games will have radio broadcasts on Hawkeye All-Access ($); all games will also be available via GameTracker. You can also follow @UIBaseball on Twitter for regular updates. Friday's game will also have a radio broadcast on AM-800 KXIC.
We'll try to post updates in the comments, but feel free to post your own, too!