By Pete Ruden
OMAHA — It’s hard to win a baseball game without getting runners on base, and Iowa proved that at the Big Ten Tournament this week.
The Hawkeyes could only muster 5 hits and 1 run in two games at TD Ameritrade Park, and that led to being the first team eliminated from the bracket, just one year removed from the first Big Ten Tournament title in program history.
“There was nothing magical that went wrong; we just kind of hit the skids offensively, and unfortunately, that’s baseball,” Iowa head coach Rick Heller said. “We didn’t have one guy who was hot who could carry us or jump-start us, and it cost us.”
There were a number of notable absences in production, including Robert Neustrom, Tyler Cropley, and Chris Whelan, who had stepped up in crunch time for Iowa all season.
In Omaha, though, their production at the plate was nowhere to be found.
Neustrom and Whelan finished with just 1 hit thanks to a Whelan base knock, combining to go 1-for-14 in the tournament, while Cropley managed only a single hit in Iowa’s 2-0 elimination-game loss to Ohio State on May 24.
It’s possible to rally when some players are having off-days, but when the go-to guys can’t put solid contact on the ball, that makes it even harder.
“With our offense, if the top three or four guys aren’t hitting — at least one of them – it makes it difficult for us to score,” Heller said. “We just haven’t really had a spell this season where that happened. We had been very fortunate the entire year where if one guy wasn’t hitting, somebody else was.”
When batters got on base, which was rare in Game 1, the Hawkeyes were not good at bringing them around to score. Iowa failed to get a baserunner in six-consecutive innings in its opening loss to Michigan. Against Ohio State, the inning’s leadoff man got on four times, but the Hawkeyes finished 0-for-15 with runners on and 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position.
To make it even more frustrating, these are teams Iowa knows it can hit against.
Iowa recorded an average of 8.3 hits a game when the Wolverines came to Banks Field in a series the Hawkeyes won.
Iowa won the regular-season series against Ohio State as well, averaging 7 base knocks per contest.
Iowa had solid pitching in both tournament games. The starters — Nick Allgeyer and Cole McDonald — only gave up a combined 2 earned runs.
The bullpen followed the strong performances, conceding just 1 run in the 10th inning in the loss to Michigan.
If a team gives up just 3 runs through two games, that usually adds up to at least one win, if not two. But things didn’t go Iowa’s way at the plate, and the losses followed.
“I was just going to go out there and compete as hard as I can compete, give the team a chance to win, just see how far I can go,” McDonald said.
The May 24 defeat will likely end Iowa’s season. Heading into the conference tournament, the Hawkeyes needed to make a run to be considered for a spot in an NCAA regional, but that didn’t happen.
Iowa showed its potential throughout the season, winning eight games against ranked opponents and taking a series from some of the conference’s best, including Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio State, as well as a nonconference series against Oklahoma State.
Expectations may not have been met, but the Hawkeyes return a strong core, and they will vy for a regional spot next season.
“It flew by way too fast,” Neustrom said. “We had a special group of guys, really special team. It was a roller coaster at times. We played really well at times — there were times where we felt like a top-five team in the nation, and there were times where we felt like [May 24]. But that’s baseball. It’s a funny game.”