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Iowa wins another Big Ten series, but drops out of first place in the conference.

Iowa's high-flying start to Big Ten play continued last weekend with another series win for the boys in black and gold -- their fourth-straight series win in league play.  Iowa took two out of three games from Northwestern, taking the opener, 4-3, and the second game, 13-4, before dropping the series finale, 4-1.  The threat of rain pushed the third game of the series off Sunday and onto Saturday night.

Iowa began the series with a thrilling 4-3 win, tying and eventually winning the game with a 3-run rally in the bottom of the 9th inning.  Iowa opened the inning with back-to-back hits, then got a walk to load the bases with no outs.  A Kris Goodman single scored the first run and made it 3-2, while an Eric Toole fly ball allowed the tying run to score.  Jake Mangler drilled a single to right field to score the winning run.  But the Iowa bats were stymied for most of the night by Northwestern pitcher Brandon Magallones who went pitched eight strong innings before running out of gas in the ninth.  Tyler Peyton got the nod for Iowa and settled down after a rocky start (he gave up 2 runs in the top of the first), going 6 1/3 innings and giving up 3 runs on 5 hits.  Ryan Erickson relieved him and picked up the win for Iowa with 2.2 innings of solid work (4 hits, 0 runs).  Eric Toole also made a spectacular diving catch during the game for Iowa.

Iowa's bats woke up in a big way in the second game of the series, rocking Northwestern pitchers for 13 runs and 16 hits.  Iowa actually led 13-0 in the game before Northwestern put up 4 runs in the top of the 9th to make the final score look slightly less embarrassing.  Everyone who got multiple at-bats for Iowa got at least one hit, except for RF Joel Booker and CF Eric Toole (who still got on base plenty, thanks to four walks).  Mangler and Goodman were the two offensive standouts, though -- Mangler went 3/5 at the plate and drove in 5 runs, while Goodman also went 3/5 at the plate, with a double and a home run (which you can watch here), and drove in 3 runs.  Blake Hickman picked up the win for Iowa with a strong performance: 7 IP, 6 hits, 0 runs, 3 strikeouts.

Iowa's strong hitting wasn't able to last through the second half of Saturday's doubleheader, though -- Iowa turned 7 hits into just 1 run.  Northwestern put 4 runs in the first 4 innings, chasing Iowa starter Calvin Mathews from the game after just 3.2 IP.  He gave up 4 runs on 6 hits and 2 walks and also had a wild pitch.  Nick Hibbing replaced Mathews and pitched well -- he posted 4.1 innings of no-hit, shutout baseball in the game.  Unfortunately, Iowa's hitters weren't able to take advantage of a seemingly favorable match-up with jNW starter Reed Mason, who entered the game at 1-7 with a 6.80 ERA.

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With Iowa's 2-1 record over the weekend and Illinois' 2-0 record (the third game of their series with Indiana was rained out), the Big Ten standings look like this now:

B1G MBB standings 4.21.15

Illinois moves ahead of Iowa in the loss column.  Illinois looks like they're going to be very tough to catch, too.  They have a very good team -- they're ranked as high as #8 in some polls and they're among the Big Ten leaders in pitching (#1 in ERA, #3 in opponent batting average, #2 in strikeouts) and hitting (#2 in batting average, #2 in slugging percentage, #3 in on-base percentage, #2 in runs scored and hits) -- and they have a very favorable schedule.  Illinois doesn't play Iowa, Maryland, or Michigan -- 3/5 of the league's top teams.  Instead, they still have to play Rutgers (#10 in the league) and Nebraska (#7 in the league), although they do also have a key series with Ohio State (#3 in the league) as well.  In comparison, Iowa faces Nebraska (#7 in the league, Michigan (#5 in the league), Minnesota (#8 in the league), and Rutgers (#10 in the league).

Iowa's still very well-positioned to make the Big Ten Tournament and they're even still being slotted into mock NCAA Tournament brackets (it helps that their RPI remains a healthy 32nd in the nation).  That said, if Iowa wants to claim a regular season Big Ten championship -- an idea which seemed like a joke six weeks ago, but seems much more plausible now -- they probably can't afford to "just" win series like they did against Northwestern.  They need to sweep those series.  Whether or not Iowa wins the Big Ten, this is still on pace to be a good -- hell, very good -- season for Iowa baseball, better than we imagined back in February and March.  The progress this program is making is downright tremendous.  But at the same time, there's also the possibility for them to turn this into an absolutely great season, too -- and it would be a lot of fun to see that come to fruition.

One area where Iowa will need to improve if they want to continue to contend in the Big Ten?  Hitting.  While Iowa's bats went off in Game 1 of Saturday's doubleheader, they were very quiet in Game 2 -- and for most of the series opener, 'til a very timely offensive eruption in the bottom of the ninth.  For the season, Iowa's hitting stats are mostly decent, but not exceptional.  They're 7th in batting average, 10th in slugging percentage, 9th in runs scored, 8th in hits, and tied for 12th in home runs (worst in the league).  Iowa rarely strikes out (just 208 times, 2nd best in the Big Ten) and is good at getting on base (4th in on-base percentage), where they can do some damage (they're tied for 2nd in stolen bases).

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Iowa's still getting love from the pollsters, too:

#17: Collegiate Baseball
#18: Baseball America
#19: D1Baseball
#21: USA Today Coaches Poll
#24: Perfect Game

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Iowa's epic homestand -- 4 games down, 6 games to go! -- continues this week with a mid-week visit from Northern Illinois and a weekend series with Nebraska.  Northern Illinois is 15-24 overall and 5-10 in the MAC; they've lost 12 of their last 14 games, so they're not exactly entering this game on a wave of positive momentum.  This should be a good opportunity to nip a losing streak in the bud after Saturday night's loss to Northwestern.

Iowa will send out freshman Nick Gallagher, who's 0-0 with a 1.69 ERA this season.  He's made three starts and given up two runs on six hits over 10.2 innings of work.  He was on the mound when Iowa broke their mid-week hex last week against Cornell; he threw 4 innings and gave up one run on four hits.  The Huskies will counter with Kevin Jones, who brings a 2-0 record into the contest despite a 9.15 ERA (he's primarily a reliever, having made just one previous start this season).  He's given up 24 runs on 30 hits in 20.2 innings of work (while walking 20 batters), so hopefully this game is a nice wake-up call for Iowa's batters.

First pitch is scheduled for 6:05 PM CT on Wednesday, April 22.  BTN Plus ($) will offer a livestream of the game, while 1360-AM and Hawkeye All-Access ($) will have radio coverage.  Beyond that, there's always GameTracker (or the comments here).