There's no doubt that Iowa's worst loss of the season was a 16-5 implosion at the hands of Western Illinois on April 1. Sixteen is the most runs Iowa has allowed all season; the Hawkeyes have only allowed double-digit ouputs on two other occasions, once each to Maryland (10) and Michigan (11), two of the best hitting ballclubs in the Big Ten. Eleven runs is Iowa's widest margin of defeat. And the Leathernecks are not the most decorated team on Iowa's schedule.
But fate (read: scheduling) gifted Iowa with a rematch. Or was it a curse? Hard to say early on, as Iowa's Nick Gallagher and a committee of WIU hurlers both cruised through the first four innings allowing one hit per side in a 0-0 standoff. Western Illinois broke through first with a two-out, bases-empty rally, chasing Gallagher with a single and double, then registering a 2-run single off of Hawkeye reliever Brandon Shulista after he entered the game in style by plunking a batter. Iowa manufactured a run in the bottom of the fifth, as Jake Mangler singled, moved to second on a passed ball, and was later brought home by a Grant Klenovich base hit. The Hawkeyes trailed 2-1 after five.
Shulista recorded a 1-2-3 sixth, setting the table for Iowa to take the lead. The lineup obliged in a big way, batting around with the help of four walks by Leatherneck pitchers (out of 16 (!!!) total free passes handed out by WIU in the game). Nick Day, Nick Roscetti, and Jimmy Frankos all recorded RBI hits during the inning, taking advantage and putting Iowa ahead 6-2.
Western would answer in the top of the seventh with a three-spot, including a 2-run homer by rightfielder Jake Moore. The 'Necks loaded the bases again after Moore's dinger, but the Hawkeyes turned a timely 4-6-3 DP to end the threat, preserving the lead at 6-5. And not to be anticlimactic, but the Hawkeyes would only allow one baserunner over the last two, and added on in the eighth for a 7-5 win.
So the Hawks again narrowly avoid a mid-week RPI ding. The rest of the schedule now consists of conference games. This weekend, the Hawks host Minnesota, fighting for its Big Ten Tournament life at 9th place (remember: only the top 8 teams in the conference qualify for the tournament) with a record of 19-26 overall and 7-11 in the B1G. Iowa then closes with ye olde venerable Big Ten road trip to Piscataway, New Jersey, to take on Rutgers (17-31-1, 5-13).
Conference Pennant Race Update
The Big Ten title hunt is all but mathematically a two-horse race. Illinois (ranked No. 6 by USA Today) is Secretariat at 16-1 (40-6-1 overall) and riding a 21-game winning streak overall. Good news: Iowa is the second horse at 15-3. Bad news: You have to catch Secretariat. But enough with the analogy to the only horse I know anything about. Illinois gets two home series to finish, the first against Rutgers, and the finale against Nebraska. Hard to see two losses in there for them against teams with a combined 13-23 record in conference, and that, combined with Iowa sweeping its remaining six would only get the Hawkeyes a tie. So pencil Illinois in as the #1 seed in your Big Ten bracket.
As for the "all but mathematically" part: Ohio State sits alone in third place at 12-6 (32-13 overall), five games behind the Illini. Ohio State needs such an Illinois collapse to even get a tie (a 1-5 finish) that I would sure hope that Iowa would then take the top spot. But that is infinitesimally unlikely. More reasonable to discuss is that Ohio State is three games behind Iowa for the #2 seed. On that front, Maryland and Michigan State are four back.
We'll give a more thorough overview of the B1G tourney soon, but suffice to say now that there are no byes; the only advantage to a better seed is playing a lower-finishing team to start. But if the conference tourney started today, your 6-8 seeds would be Michigan (the best hitting team in the conference), Indiana (the conference's biggest recent powerhouse), and Nebraska (still No. 27 in RPI), in that order. So regardless of where 2-4 shake out, I don't think any of the eight teams will be trotting out their No. 3 starter on day one. It's a deep field. Iowa has a substantial leg up on the two spot, and a light-ish schedule coming home, but there's not much reward to be reaped other than trying to solidify an at-large NCAA spot.
NCAA Tournament Projections
As with the conference tourney, we plan on posting an NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament fan primer soon. But know for now the field starts with sixteen regional brackets seeded 1-4. Most pertinent to know for Iowa, as the experts have them uniformly seeded, is that a two seed in a baseball regional is the equivalent of anything from a 5 through an 8 in terms of basketball seeding (17-32 overall seed).
As of last week, D1Baseball.com had Iowa hosting a regional as a #2 seed, presumably because #1 seed UC-Santa Barbara would be somehow unable to host. Others in that projected regional are Kentucky and Creighton.
College Sports Madness also has Iowa as a #2 seed, but traveling to L.A. for a regional hosted by USC. Cal State-Fullerton is the projected #3 in that regional, so Iowa would have a tough road to hoe to win that and move to the super regional (round of 16).
Finally (for now), SBN's Oklahoma State site had Iowa last week as a #2 seed in Dallas, with Dallas Baptist hosting, joined by last year's national runner-up Virginia.
So Iowa is pretty uniformly projected as a #2 seed. Short of winning out in the regular season and taking home the B1G tourney trophy, I don't know that Iowa can do much to get on the #1 line. But any way Iowa could host, even as a #2, would be huge.
Well update this as new projections are released, and we'll have a preview of this weekend's Minnesota series up soon.