Iowa entered this weekend's three-game series with Purdue knowing that they needed just one win to lock up the program's first trip to the Big Ten Tournament since 2010. They decided to end the suspense early:
#Hawkeyes win series opener at Purdue, 10-3, to clinch berth in next week's B1G Tournament!— Iowa Baseball (@UIBaseball) May 16, 2014
There wasn't much suspense in the game, either: Iowa jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead in the top of the first inning thanks to a trio of singles and a Dan Potempa double. Purdue pulled a few runs back to make the score 3-2, but Iowa posted another three-run inning in the fourth inning to give themselves a 6-2 lead which would be more than enough to lock up a win. Purdue has the worst hitting team in the Big Ten (.230), so the odds of a comeback there were not great.
Iowa starter Blake Hickman lasted just two innings (giving up two runs), but Nick Hibbing and Jared Mandel combined to give Iowa seven strong innings in relief (just 1 ER), with Mandel in particular looking strong in tossing six strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings. Still, while the bullpen performed admirably today, it would be nice if tomorrow's starting pitcher (Sasha Kuebel) could go deep into the game and give them a rest.
Iowa's sweep at the hands of Illinois last weekend was rough to watch, but it ended up not hurting Iowa much in the standings. Neither Michigan State nor Ohio State gained much ground and Penn State's freefall continued in a three-game bludgeoning at the hands of Indiana. In fact, with Iowa's win Thursday and Ohio State's loss, the Hawkeyes actually sit in a tie for 6th place with Ohio State. Michigan State and Ohio State each have -- on paper -- easy opponents this weekend (Penn State and Northwestern, respectively), so Iowa likely needs to keep their winning ways going against OMHR if they want to stay away from the #8 seed and a showdown with that buzzsaw of an Indiana team.
For the most part, it's difficult not to view the debut season of new manager Rick Heller as a solid success for Iowa baseball; he turned their moribund offense into one of the best in the Big Ten and helped turn Iowa's overall win-loss record around (from 22-27 to 28-20... and counting). That said, their Big Ten record hasn't improved -- Iowa went 10-14 last year and they're 9-13 this year (with two games remaining). Short of a sweep of Purdue this weekend, they won't be able to better that mark this season. Securing a spot in the Big Ten Tournament (for the first time since 2010, no less) is a good accomplishment, too... but it also came in a year when the Big Ten has expanded the tournament field from six to eight. If the Big Ten had had an 8-team field in the 2013 Big Ten Tournament, Iowa would have made the tournament then too.
Still, I don't want to diminish this team's accomplishments. There's definitely room for improvement -- a .500 record in Big Ten play would be a nice start -- but this year has been a step forward. They have a chance to win 30 games. They're going to have a shot to play in the Big Ten Tournament. These are good things for Iowa baseball.
Games 2 and 3 of the Iowa-Purdue series are on Friday (5:30 PM CT) and Saturday (1:00 PM CT) and are being streamed on Hawkeye All-Access/video.BTN.com.