By Adam Hensley
One year removed from being crowned Big Ten Tournament champs, Iowa baseball headed back to Iowa City rather quickly this season as the first team eliminated from the tourney bracket.
It wasn’t pretty by any means, and Hawkeye pitcher Cole McDonald said the Hakweyes’ 33-20 mark doesn’t mean anything without a Big Ten title or an NCAA berth.
“If you consider the number of wins, I think we did decent on that, but other than that, I really consider this a lost season,” he said after Iowa’s 2-0 loss to Ohio State on May 24.
The Hawkeyes stepped up the challenge of a late-season scheduling gauntlet, taking series wins against No. 7 Michigan and No. 12 Oklahoma State. But two uncharacteristic losses to Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois, left Iowa barely clinging to its NCAA hopes.
The Hawkeyes needed to go far in the Big Ten Tournament — if not win the whole thing — to receive a bid for the NCAA regional, and that didn’t happen.
Iowa’s offense in Omaha was dreadful, to put it plainly; the Hawkeyes had 5 hits in the pair of losses, and they went scoreless in their final 17 innings of the tournament. Tyler Cropley and Robert Neustrom, two of Iowa’s most dynamic bats, combined to go 1-of-15 at the plate.
The Hawkeyes’ 2018 season marked the worst batting average (.265) and fewest hits (472) under head coach Rick Heller, but while 2018 ended on a sour note for the Hawkeyes, the Iowa program did make strides, despite missing what would have been a second-straight year of NCAA play.
Continuing the boom
In the last 10 seasons, 2018 marked the first year in which Iowa recorded back-to-back 40-plus home-run seasons (prior to 2017, a Heller-led Iowa squad failed to record more than 26 home runs in a season).
The season earlier, Iowa clouted 71 homers (29 of which coming off the bat of power-hitter-extraordinaire Jake Adams). The Hawkeyes went yard 41 times in 2018, and their home-run production came from a number of players. Four Hawkeyes hit 4 or more home runs — 11 from Neustrom, 9 from Cropley, 6 from Kyle Crowl, and 4 from Chris Whelan.
The only reason Iowa wasn’t blown out in the Big Ten Tournament was its pitching — arguably one of the biggest constants throughout the season.
Nick Allgeyer proved to be if not the best arm, one of the best arms in the country, throwing 95 strikeouts. That ranks second all-time for a single season in Hawkeye history.
Brady Schanuel (65 K’s), Cole McDonald (52), Zach Daniels (49), and Jack Dreyer (42) also contributed to Iowa’s whopping 499 strikeouts in 2018, the most in the Heller era.
The Hawkeyes’ 499 punch outs were 29 more than the year before, and aside from 2017, no other team in the past 10 years has come close to touching that mark, as no Hawkeye squad has come within 100 strikeouts during that stretch.
Iowa’s pitchers also held opponents to their lowest batting average under Heller: .251. Iowa came close to matching that mark in 2016 with a .252 average. 2018 marked the second time in 10 years that Iowa held its opponents to a batting average in the .250 range.
Putting 2018 in context
Iowa’s 33 wins — the fifth season with 30 or more wins in a row — kept it in contention for an NCAA at-large bid. The Hawkeyes still had a shot to get into the regional, despite plummeting in the RPI after suffering the two losses to Northwestern in their second-to-last Big Ten series of the season.
A 33-20 record is nothing to scoff at, and that Iowa has notched five-straight 30-win seasons under Heller is truly remarkable. The 33 wins are the third-most in a season during Heller’s five years (Iowa won 41 and 39 games in 2015 and 2017, respectively).
In the five seasons prior to Heller taking the reins, the Hawkeyes never recorded more than 30 wins. Iowa averaged roughly a 22-29 record during that span, with win totals dropping as low as 16 in 2009.
McDonald’s words hung heavy after Iowa’s knockout loss to Ohio State, but in reality, saying that a 33-20 season is a disappointment is a testament to how far Heller has taken the Hawkeye program.