By Pete Ruden
Iowa baseball is in a good place.
With series wins over No. 7 Michigan and No. 12 Oklahoma State in the past two weekends, the Hawkeyes have put themselves inside the bubble for the NCAA Tournament.
But that can be a tricky place to navigate. The only Big Ten opponents left on Iowa’s schedule are Northwestern and Penn State — the bottom two teams in the conference standings.
With the Wildcats and Nittany Lions having a combined record of 7-35 in the Big Ten, a meltdown to end the season would be detrimental for the Hawkeyes.
“Coach Heller definitely just harped on it — you can’t take those guys lightly,” left fielder Chris Whelan said. “We’re playing anybody, we never play the name on the front of the jersey, we always just play our own baseball. These last two series are as big as anything. They’re as big as [Oklahoma State], so we can’t take them lightly.”
While the Hawkeyes have certainly had some big wins in recent weeks, focus is key heading into the tail end of the season.
“Big picture, [these upcoming games] are huge,” Iowa head coach Rick Heller said. “We all know that we’re not good enough to just show up and beat anybody — that’s a fact … You have to play in this league every single day, and if you don’t, you’re going to lose.”
And so far, Iowa hasn’t been a team to quit.
Against Oklahoma State, the Hawkeyes dropped Game 1 on May 4 before picking up wins in the next two games, including a comeback from a 3-run deficit when heading into the seventh inning in Game 2.
In the final game against Michigan on April 29, Iowa trailed, 5-1, after two innings, but didn’t let the fear of playing a top-10 team hamper it, eventually winning on a walk-off homer by catcher Tyler Cropley.
The Hawkeyes even salvaged a big series against then-No. 25 Minnesota on April 22, after dropping the first two games of the series. The victory ended up giving Iowa momentum, and it went on to win five of its next eight with four of those triumphs coming against ranked opponents.
Despite a long season, every game matters, and Iowa fights for every win it earns, whether it’s in conference play or not.
“I couldn’t be prouder of our guys. They just keep playing, and play hard, and play the way they’re supposed to,” Heller said. “They don’t let stuff that goes the wrong way or goes bad affect them — they just keep playing. When you can do that in baseball, the game usually comes back to you.”
Iowa’s schedule speaks for itself. The Hawkeyes played ranked opponents in each of the past three weekends and brought Missouri, an SEC opponent, up to Banks Field for a midweek game on May 1.
The gauntlet of a schedule resembles the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments — Iowa will play high-quality ballclubs each day in a fast-paced environment.
“It definitely gets us ready to go each week,” Cropley said. “Every game on the schedule is circled, and we always come out and are ready to play.”