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Iowa Again Piecing Together Postseason Resume

With a series win against UC Irvine over the weekend, Iowa padded its ever-improving postseason resume, putting a third regional appearance in five seasons within its sights.

If nothing else, you certainly can’t accuse Iowa of not making it interesting down the stretch each year, because having to push to put itself in the postseason discussion is nothing new for this program in recent years.

In 2016, the Hawkeyes weren’t in at-large position, but they made a run to the Big Ten Tournament final as the No. 8 seed before being eliminated. In 2017, they finished the job and won the Big Ten Tournament in order to qualify for regionals. And then last year, they were in a nearly identical position to the one they stand in right now.

Exactly 12 months ago, Iowa was coming off a big series win against Oklahoma State. At that point, the Hawkeyes were inside the top 50 in RPI and likely felt pretty good about their chances to play postseason baseball for the second consecutive season. But that hope never materialized, as they dropped a series to Northwestern the following weekend and their at-large hopes were, for all intents and purposes, shot.

It’s a memory all too fresh in Iowa’s mind.

“The guys who were here last year, they understand how it works,” coach Rick Heller said. “One bad day and everybody is shooting you down. We know, all of us in baseball, that it can happen against anybody at any time.”

The fact that Heller and his staff even have this team in position to make a postseason run is impressive. It’s fair to say that expectations were modest coming into the season, and understandably so.

Iowa came into 2019 having lost Friday starter Nick Allgeyer, its top two relief arms in Zach Daniels and Nick Nelsen, three of its top four hitters in Tyler Cropley, Robert Neustrom and Matt Hoeg, and starting shortstop Kyle Crowl.

On top of that, it lost two assistant coaches, pitching coach Desi Druschel and hitting coach Joe Migliaccio, to jobs with the New York Yankees a matter of weeks before the season began. And once the season got underway, projected weekend starter Jack Dreyer was lost to injury after just two appearances.

And yet, here the Hawkeyes are.

“We’re playing with a ton of confidence," closer Grant Leonard said. "That's—I believe—six straight series wins. We're playing really good right now at the perfect time, so it's fun to be around here right now."

The starting rotation has almost inarguably been the biggest reason why the Hawkeyes are in this position, which you might not have expected given the losses of Allgeyer to the draft and Dreyer to injury.

Righthander Grant Judkins, a two-way player this year getting his first experience as a weekend starter, is 4-6, 2.24. Lefthander Cam Baumann stepped in when Dreyer went down, and he’s done an admirable job at 4-2, 4.50 in 54 innings, including five scoreless innings against UCI.

Most notably, though, senior righthander Cole McDonald, who was 3-2, 3.23 as the Sunday starter a year ago, has grown into a true Friday starter. This season, he's 5-3, 3.42, and he’s been particularly magnificent over the last five weeks in which he’s allowed just six earned runs in 33.1 innings, good enough for a 1.62 ERA.

It’s a Friday starter’s job to set the tone for the weekend, get his team off to a quick start and to stare down the other team’s best pitcher. But the key to McDonald settling into the role was to actually stop thinking of it that way.

“I think, at the beginning of the season, I thought that thought. And that’s what made me not as effective—because I put too much pressure on myself,” McDonald said. “And now I just couldn’t care less who is starting for them really, honestly, and I just want to go out there and pitch the way I know I can.”

Offensively, the Hawkeyes aren’t the most explosive offense, but they’ve proven to have enviable depth.

They’ve pieced it together with the help of junior catcher Austin Martin (.308/.380/.408), sophomore infielder Izaya Fullard (.300/.382/.431) and freshman infielder Brendan Sher (.339/.412/.492).

Combined with a Zeb Adreon (.319/.419/.484), a now-scalding hot Chris Whelan (.291/.452/.390), Ben Norman, who leads the team in homers (six) and stolen bases (nine) despite hitting just .240, and the steady Tanner Wetrich (.253/.360/.427) at shortstop, Iowa has an offense without a headline star in the mold of a Jake Adams or a Robert Neustrom, but with as many as 13 or 14 players they trust to start in big games.

But it hasn’t just been the roster attrition and the injuries that made a postseason appearance look unlikely at certain points. Throughout the course of this season, Iowa’s prospects for building a regional-quality resume have looked bleak. At about the midway point, the Hawkeyes' RPI was above 100, and it didn’t get under 80 until three weeks ago. A series loss to Evansville in early March and a sweep at the hands of Indiana to begin Big Ten play didn’t inspire confidence, either.

With the way they’ve played lately, though, this team knows its goals are all right in front of them if they keep it rolling.

“Obviously, our goal is to be in a regional after the Big Ten Tournament at the end of the season,” Fullard said. “And I think we’ve put ourselves in a really good spot to reach that goal.”

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Going into the last few weeks of the season, the Hawkeyes have one of the most interesting resumes of any team on the bubble.

The weekend sweep against the Anteaters moved the Hawkeyes’ RPI modestly—from 60 to 56—but it added to the resume in other areas. It gave Iowa another headline series win, which adds to the series they've already captured against Oklahoma State, Illinois and Nebraska, pushing their record against the RPI top 50 to a solid 9-7.

Those are the ways in which this season is reminiscent of last season, when Iowa had quality series wins against Illinois, Michigan and Oklahoma State late in the season and finished 8-9 against the top 50, while at the same time struggling to keep their RPI in a palatable range.

But it’s important to note that this particular team is in better shape overall than they were last year.

This year, for example, the Hawkeyes don’t have an issue with the Big Ten standings. At 11-7, they sit in fourth place, just one game behind second-place Indiana. Last season, they finished 13-9 in Big Ten play, which placed them in a tie for sixth in the league.

With series against Michigan State and Maryland (a combined 13-22 in Big Ten play) on the horizon for Iowa, there is plenty of reason to be confident that, if anything, it will move up from here.

But that’s the other thing. Last season, Iowa came out of that series against Oklahoma State staring at a favorable Big Ten schedule to finish the season against Northwestern and Penn State. But it also carried risk because both those teams ended last year as teams with an RPI north of 200. There isn’t that kind of pressure facing Iowa now. Michigan State has struggled this season, but it ranks No. 178 in RPI. Maryland, meanwhile, is a solid team that sports an RPI of 85.

The Hawkeyes hope the biggest difference between last year and this year is yet to come, though. Like last year, this team played some of its best baseball in its most high-profile late-season series, but this is a resilient group that has already had to deal with an uncommon number of bumps in the road, and that has them feeling confident that they can write a different ending this time.

“I feel like we’ve been through a lot so far this year with a hitting coach, pitching coach leaving, Mitch (Boe) just gets hurt, we have a lot of guys shuffling around, but what I really like about this team is that no one gives up,” McDonald said. “Every person can come to the ballpark and almost expect to play no matter what, depending on the situation. And honestly, at this point of the season, I just feel like we’ve seen everything, we’ve been put in every single situation possible, so there is nothing that can really surprise us or take us off course.”

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