Last year's Iowa baseball team started hot (which got us to start writing about them) and ended up winning 30 games, but ended with an 11-16 total record in conference games. This year's start felt similar--except for the team's identity--racking up wins in the non-con, but against a less-than-staggering schedule. Then the Indiana sweep happened, but there was still some doubt, with the Hoosiers at 2-6 in conference play, and the Hawkeyes hitting the road to take on a Maryland team that had been ranked all year and appeared in the NCAA regionals in 2014. Could the Hawkeyes hang with the Terrapins on the road?
Friday's game one felt like a rude awakening. The Terps generated two runs in the second inning after having none on and two out, as Kengo Kawahara stroked a two-run double after a hit batsman and a single. Iowa gamely answered in the third, with a one-out RBI double by Eric Toole. But Iowa starter Tyler Peyton surrendered three runs in the sixth, two of which scored after he left with one out, dropping Iowa further into the hole at 5-1. Now much as we love our Hawks, an offensive juggernaut they are not, and a four-run deficit heading into the seventh is a tall order for them. Indeed, Iowa could not muster any more runs. But concern with the deservedness of Iowa's lofty ranking may have crept in a bit when Maryland added on five more runs against the Hawkeye bullpen for a 10-1 victory.
So there it was. Iowa had gotten pantsed for its first Big Ten defeat of the year, and had two more to go against Maryland's vaunted lineup. But the thing about Iowa's starting rotation, featuring touted draft prospect and fireballer Blake Hickman in the middle, and 2014 ace Calvin Mathews at the back end, is that they are all stoppers.
Any enjoyment Maryland took out of their five-run eighth inning in game one was rapidly drained by Hickman, who set down the first 12 Maryland batters on Saturday. A Daniel Aaron Moriel sac fly and Jake Mangler RBI single gave Hickman a 2-0 lead headed into the bottom of the seventh, at which point he had allowed only a walk on a borderline 3-2 pitch. But the Terrapins discovered some two-out bases-empty magic again, rapping three straight hits to chase Hickman and cut Iowa's lead to 2-1. Enter Nick Hibbing, who immediately struck out DH Jamal Wade to end the threat, and fanned four others, including conference home run leader Brandon Lowe with two outs and a man on in the eighth to nail down the save in a 3-1 Iowa victory.
Mathews backed up Hickman's solid game two performance with a quality outing in game three, going five innings and surrendering only a solo homer to Lowe, which tied the game at 1-1 in the fifth; Iowa had previously observed their way to a run in the second on four straight walks. Immediately after Lowe's homer, Maryland shortstop Kevin Smith hit a chopper in front of the plate, and appeared to get to second on an errant throw that struck his helmet. But Smith was called for interference, and Maryland could not take the lead in the fifth. Or at all. Ryan Erickson relieved Mathews to start the sixth, and promptly hit a batter, who was moved to third with two productive outs. Maryland would strand the runner, though. Smith was again on the unfortunate end of an errant throw to first base, this time tossing a would-be groundout by Iowa's Nick Day to the fence, allowing Day to reach second base to lead off the Iowa seventh. Toole drag-bunted his way on, moving Day to third, and Day scored on a Mangler double-play ball, putting the Hawkeyes ahead 2-1. From there, Erickson and sidearmer Luke Vandermaten nailed it down for Iowa, giving up only a single apiece to Lowe (in the 9th) and Kevin Martir (in the 7th) the rest of the way in the 2-1 Hawkeye victory.
Watchin' Standings and Rankings
The Hawkeyes are now 23-9 overall, and 8-1 in the B1G. They are tied in the loss column with Illinois (28-6-1, 7-1), and lead Ohio State (23-9, 7-2) by a game. Maryland (24-10, 8-4) and Nebraska (26-11, 5-4) round out the teams currently with winning conference records at 1.5 games and 3 games behind, respectively.
Iowa's football team hasn't been ranked since 2010. The baseball team hasn't been ranked since...last week. So this is an exciting time. Here's the poll movement for Iowa following the Maryland series:
- Color me genuinely puzzled by the USA Today Top 25. Last week, Iowa was the top "other" receiving votes. Maryland crashed six spots, and the Hawkeyes are now neither ranked nor receiving votes from the looks of it. Clerical error?
- The Hawkeyes finally cracked D1Baseball.com's top 25, getting in at #19.
- Iowa moved from #25 to #20 in Baseball America's top 25.
- Collegiate Baseball, which was already high on Iowa at #15, moved the Hawkeyes up to #14.
Let's see, what else is there? Oh...
Midweek games have been troublesome for Iowa. Hard to say if it's just coincidence or a genuine depth problem outside of the weekend rotation. Whatever the cause, Iowa will try to buck that trend at Bradley on Tuesday night (7 P.M. CT). The Hawkeyes then have games at the Duane against Cornell College (6:05 P.M. CT Wednesday) and justNorthwestern (three-game set starting Friday, April 17).