All year long Iowa has won primarily on the strength of its pitching and defense. Unfortunately, when those pillars of success fail, it becomes very difficult for Iowa to succeed. Iowa's pitching and defense weren't terrible by any means on Saturday -- but they made just enough mistakes to send Iowa to defeat.
In fact, it was just two bad innings that did in Iowa's bid for a second-straight NCAA Tournament win Saturday night against Missouri State in the Springfield Regional. Blake Hickman, who had been arguably Iowa's best pitcher all year (although he's been in a bit of an end-of-season funk over his last few starts; perhaps he's understandably wearing down after the wear and tear of his first year as a full-time pitcher), pitched three scoreless innings, but couldn't get out of the fourth inning. Two straight walks followed by two straight singles led to two Missouri State runs, which tied the game at 2-2. In hindsight, some of the warning signs had been there previously: Hickman walked three batters in the first three innings, too, and he struggled to get quick outs, with his pitch count rapidly escalating.
Hickman was replaced by Ryan Erickson, but unfortunately things didn't get any better for Iowa -- he walked two more batters in his 0.2 innings of work and gave up three runs in the fifth inning off a walk and three straight singles. One of the singles came on an infield single where 3B Nick Day made a good stop and got the ball to 1B Tyler Peyton in time, but Peyton wasn't able to handle the hard throw -- not a terrible play, but a small mistake that proved costly. That was the story of the game for Iowa -- lots of little mistakes that added up to damage. Iowa pitchers scattered nine hits across nine innings, but they also handed out 8 walks and got dinged for balks twice. They didn't give up any extra-base hits (although a possible Missouri State home run in the first inning was controversially called a foul ball), but too many of the walks and singles were consolidated in a few innings.
In many ways, the game was a perfect storm of problems for Iowa's pitchers (or at least Hickman and Erickson; Brandon Shulista came on in relief of Erickson and he pitched 4.1 innings of shutout ball, giving up just 2 hits and a single walk): they struggled with their control, but also had to contend with a home plate umpire whose strike zone was fairly small (and somewhat inconsistent at times) as well as a Missouri State lineup that was exceptionally patient and willing to take a lot of walks. That was a bad combination for Iowa's pitchers.
Iowa's batters also struggled. They scored a pair of runs in the bottom of the 2nd inning, although it came in typical Iowa small-ball fashion: a walk and two infield singles assisted by two uncharacteristic Missouri State throwing errors. Iowa had two runs and the ball never left the infield (except when Missouri State's second basemen tried to hurl it into his own dugout). Alas, that kind of scoring is difficult to sustain and, sure enough, Iowa wasn't able to do that. Missouri State P Matt Hall scattered a handful of Iowa hits over the rest of his 8-inning outing (in which he threw a whopping 132 pitches), but he also rang up 11 strikeouts (which should have come as no surprise, as Hall was the NCAA leader in strikeouts this season). Outside of the 2nd, Iowa had just one other inning with at least two hits: the ninth, when they scored their only other run of the game after a Nick Day double down the third base line.
The loss drops Iowa to 1-1 in Regional play and sets them up for a rematch with Oregon today at 2 PM CT. Should Iowa win that game, they'd need to beat Missouri State twice, once tonight and again tomorrow, in order to advance to the Super-Regional round. The loss was frustrating, but Iowa will be able to put Calvin Mathews (5-3, 2.67 ERA), one of Iowa's best pitchers this year, on the mound against the Ducks. Shulista's shutdown efforts also kept Iowa from having to burn through any more relievers, so they should have a decent number of bullpen arms to call on today, too. Let's see if Iowa can extend this excellent adventure just a little bit longer.