By Pete Ruden
OMAHA — Iowa baseball’s Big Ten Tournament opener against No. 3 seed Michigan had the makings of a pitchers’ duel.
With Iowa’s first-team All-Big Ten left-hander Nick Allgeyer facing the Wolverines’ All-Big Ten second-teamer Tommy Henry, it figured to be a low-scoring battle.
But things changed when Robert Neustrom forced Henry to leave the game, launching a hard comebacker at the Michigan left-hander’s throwing arm. Iowa could not capitalize, however, “racking up” a meager 1 hit and moving to the consolation bracket with a 2-1 loss in 10 innings.
“It was a weird game,” Iowa head coach Rick Heller said.
What made the contest different was the Wolverine fielding. Iowa made solid contact throughout the game, but Michigan defenders made diving, web-gem-like plays look routine to keep the Hawkeyes off the basepaths.
“For us, it felt like Michigan had 15 fielders out there,” Heller said. “You hit three balls off the pitcher, and you don’t get a hit, and they’re making diving plays left and right. Anything we hit in the outfield, they either made a nice play or it was right at them.”
Iowa’s offensive drought eventually became too much. The Hawkeyes failed to get a baserunner from the fifth inning on, and Michigan took advantage in the 10th.
After a fly-out to center, reliever Zach Daniels gave up 2 walks. Nick Nelsen came in for the steady right-hander shortly after and gave up a questionable infield single to load the bases. Then, a sacrifice fly from Michigan first baseman Jesse Franklin ended the contest.
While the game lacked a ton of offense, things could have been very different. After getting stung in the arm by Neustrom’s liner in the second, Henry tried to stay in the game but tossed an errant five-pitch walk to Matt Hoeg.
Alec Rennard replaced Henry, leaving Iowa with an opportunity to do some damage. The Hawkeyes only scored 1 when Ben Norman hit a ball sharply to Franklin, who mishandled it and allowed Hoeg to score.
That was the only damage Iowa did in the inning, though, and Franklin redeemed himself shortly after.
In the bottom of the fourth, Franklin crushed an Allgeyer pitch into the right-center bleachers to tie the game at 1.
In the sixth, Franklin came dangerously close to hurting the Hawkeyes again, smacking a ball to the warning track in left field. The ball ricocheted off Norman’s glove and put a runner on second with one out.
After a walk, Allgeyer induced a huge 1-4-3 inning-ending double play to get out of the jam, but the Wolverines eventually scored that all-important run.
Iowa’s ace was tremendous yet again, going seven strong innings, surrendering only 1 run on 4 hits. He also fanned 9 Wolverines, which tied a career-high and moved him into second place in the Hawkeye history books for punch-outs in a season with 95.
The Hawkeye offense struggled, though. After scoring the 1 unearned run in the second, Iowa could not get anything going at the plate, failing to take advantage of the Michigan pitching problem. Rennard tossed a superb performance in relief, giving up just 1 hit in 5.2 innings of work.
“It definitely was a pitching and defense kind of a day,” Michigan head coach Erik Bakich said.
Iowa will be back at TD Ameritrade Park early on May 24, for a 9 a.m. battle with Ohio State.
But unlike the tournament opener, it’s win or go home for the Hawkeyes.
“At this point, it’s survival mode. It’s win or go home,” Iowa first baseman Chris Whelan said. “It’s one frame of mind right now. There are no second chances in this situation that we’re in. We’ve dug ourselves a pretty big hole, so it’s up to everybody; it’s up to the leaders to kind of rally around everybody.”