And just like that, it was over. The crazy, unexpected, and thoroughly enjoyable ride that Iowa baseball took us on this year has reached its end point, in the final of the Springfield Regional. Missouri State dealt the first blow to Iowa in the Regional last, a 5-3 loss, and the finished the job on Sunday night, dropping Iowa via 3-2 scoreline in a game that began just an hour after Iowa staved off elimination with an 11-inning grinder of a win over Oregon earlier in the day on Sunday.
The cause of death for Iowa's season was readily apparent and brutally predictable: it's the offense, stupid. We knew this going in: Iowa entered the NCAA Tournament with a mediocre batting average and ranked among the Big Ten bottom-dwellers in terms of extra-base hits (except for triples, weirdly) and slugging percentage. This was an Iowa offense that relied heavily on accumulations of singles, drawing walks, aggressive base-running, embracing small-ball tactics (sacrifice bunts, for instance), and very timely hitting.
Iowa notched just 24 hits across all 4 NCAA Tournament games this weekend, a miserly 6 hits per game average. (They didn't even that low average in their games today, grabbing 5 hits against Oregon and 4 hits against Missouri State.) They recorded one extra-base hit (a Nick Day double Saturday night) across all four games. Iowa did induce 17 walks from the pitches they faced this weekend, which boosted their base runner numbers. Unfortunately, they struggled mightily to convert those base runners into runs scored -- Iowa stranded 34 runners over the course of the weekend and at one point during the Oregon game Sunday they were hitting 4/29 with runners in scoring position across all of this weekend's games. (I don't know exactly how that stat ended up, but suffice to say that Iowa didn't hit much better with runners in scoring position after ESPN flashed that stat.)
Iowa's offensive performance in their elimination game loss to Missouri State was all too characteristic of their struggles. Iowa didn't record their first hit of the game until the 5th inning and wasn't able to put any sort of sustained offense together until the 8th inning, when they scored their only two runs of the game. Even their runs came in unconventional ways: they opened the 8th with a pair of singles then loaded the bases with a perfect bunt. They scored their first run off a fielder's choice groundball and their second came a few plays later after a walk had loaded the bases -- a second walk brought a man home from third base. Alas, with the bases loaded, Iowa's rally (and the inning) ended with a Kris Goodman strikeout.
It was a shame that Iowa's hitters struggled so mightily to get going this weekend because the pitching Iowa received was generally excellent. All told, Iowa held their opponents this weekend to just 25 hits and 10 runs over four games -- pretty sparkling numbers. Calvin Mathews got Iowa off to a great start on Sunday, going six innings against Oregon and giving up just two runs on one hit while striking out three and walking none. Luke Vandermaten followed Mathews with two innings of scoreless work, although he did give up one hit and walk three. He also set up a very precarious situation for Iowa in that game: bases loaded, no outs in the bottom of the ninth. All the Ducks needed to do was get sac fly and the game would be over. Enter: Nick Hibbing.
Hibbing was the unquestioned star of the day on Sunday -- indeed, he was deservedly recognized as the Most Outstanding Player of the Springfield Regional, despite the fact that Iowa did not advance to the Super-Regionals. Hibbing entered the game against Oregon in the ninth and inherited a mess with the game hanging in the balance. That's when Hibbing transformed into a wizard and magicked Iowa out of harm's way with a quick strikeout and a double-play (which also involved a tremendous stretch from 1B Tyler Peyton; pitching and defense, the Iowa heroes yet again). Inning over, Iowa's season saved. Hibbing kept Oregon on lockdown over the next two innings as well, striking out two more Ducks and never allowing them to have so much as a base runner.
Iowa gave the nod to junior Connor Grant in Sunday night's tilt against Missouri State; unfortunately, he was very much off his game. He lasted just 17 pitches, conceding two walks and a HBP that ended up with Missouri State having a 1-0 lead (sans a hit) after the 1st inning. Grant was replaced by Hibbing, who was simply masterful: he went 5.2 innings, giving up just one hit, walking three, and striking out eight Bears. He was also charged with a run, although that came after he had left the game in the 7th inning. (As great as he was, he probably shouldn't have come out for that 7th inning -- he was visibly wearing down before that and seemed to be done at the end of the 6th inning.) But Hibbing's performance absolutely kept Iowa in the game Sunday night and gave hope that if the Iowa bats could get something, anything going, then maybe Iowa could grind out another improbable win and earn a rubber match with Missouri State for a spot in the Super-Regionals next weekend. That they couldn't manage that doesn't take away from Hibbing's excellence. His numbers last weekend were sparkling: 1-0, 1 save, 0.87 ERA in three appearances and 10 1/3 total innings of work. He gave up four hits total and allowed one run. He gave everything he had to the Hawkeyes cause yesterday in his final appearance in black and gold. His efforts will unquestionably be missed next season.
It's sad to say goodbye to this season. It was the most enjoyable season of Iowa baseball that I can ever recall, since the magical runs of the 70s pre-date me and Iowa baseball was a little outside my wheel house in 1990. This Iowa team won 41 games, the second-most of any team in Iowa history. They contended for a Big Ten title until the final weekend of the regular season; in fact, if not for the fact that Illinois had one of the greatest regular season campaigns of any Big Ten team ever, Iowa might very well have claimed a conference crown this year. They made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years and then did something even rarer -- they won a NCAA Tournament game for the first time in 43 years. And then they did it again yesterday. This was all kinds of fun. They won blowouts and they won close games (lots and lots of close games), they won (occasionally) with offensive explosions and they won (routinely) with pitching and defense. They won by grabbing early leads and holding on tight and they won by staging wild, improbable comebacks. They were great fun to watch. And they will be missed.
This team is set to lose a lot of key players (mainly to graduation, but also possibly to the MLB Draft), which we'll talk about more later this week, so it will likely be difficult for next year's team to achieve the heights that this year's squad did. But Rick Heller has established a tremendous foundation of success at Iowa and there's every reason to hope -- and believe -- that we won't be waiting another 25 years to make an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, or another 43 years to win an NCAA Tournament game. Kudos to Rick Heller, Nick Hibbing, Tyler Peyton, Blake Hickman, Calvin Mathews, Nick Roscetti, Jake Mangler, Kris Goodman, Eric Toole, Jimmy Frankos, Joel Booker, and all the other Hawkeyes that contributed to this excellent season. This was fun -- let's do it again soon.