IOWA CITY, Ia. — When the conference schedule came out last summer, Rick Heller knew getting back to the Big Ten baseball tournament wouldn’t be easy.
“I saw it right away,” Iowa’s third-year coach said.
Just past the halfway mark, the Hawkeyes still have an opportunity to make it. But Friday night’s 8-4 loss to No. 21 Michigan makes a difficult road that much harder.
Many of the season-high 1,123 fans at Duane Banks Field stuck around for the frantic finish of a 3-hour, 37-minute game. With the bases loaded and two outs, Iowa freshman Robert Neustrom pounded a long drive to center field.
“When it came off the bat, I thought it was gone,” Heller said. “I really did.”
Rick Heller looks at the 8-4 loss and road ahead.
It was caught at the warning track. Another five feet, and we might still be playing.
“Felt good off the bat, but didn’t feel great, if you know what I’m saying," Neustrom said. "I thought it had a chance, because the wind wasn’t blowing.”
But it's a loss. Iowa can't afford too many more.
Eight teams qualify for the league tournament, this year held May 25-29 in Omaha, Neb. Iowa was the No. 2 seed last year in Minneapolis, but regaining a similar magic has been challenging with a younger, rebuilt roster facing a stacked conference schedule.
Every Big Ten team misses four opponents on the annual 24-game schedule, which includes eight three-game series. Iowa’s draw just so happens to miss the Big Ten’s bottom three — Rutgers, Northwestern and Purdue.
The Hawkeyes, now 17-18 overall and 6-7 in the Big Ten, are in the No. 8 spot with 11 scheduled games left — two more against Michigan (27-9, 7-2), three each at Ohio State and Penn State (combined 28-5 at home) and home vs. third-place Michigan State.
If the Hawkeyes can find their way to Omaha — and they have to win it all there to return to the NCAA Tournament — at least they’ll be battle-tested.
“I think we’re fine,” leading hitter Joel Booker said. “We just can’t stress and overthink it. We’ve just got to take it day by day, pitch by pitch, game by game and play Iowa baseball like we know how to. I think things will come out our way.”
As Friday showed, Iowa won’t quit.
Down 5-0 in the sixth inning, Iowa made a valiant comeback effort that was partially sparked by one of the weirdest plays you’ll see. With Hawkeyes on first and third and one out, Michigan catcher Harrison Wenson tried to pick off Nick Roscetti at third, but his throw dinged off the Mason McCoy’s aluminum bat and deflected into left field. Roscetti trotted home to score the first of four Iowa runs in the inning, giving this one some drama.
But when potential tying run Austin Guzzo was thrown out at home trying to score on a passed ball, Iowa’s momentum halted. In the seventh, a batter’s interference call on Roscetti stopped another threat.
“It was right there for us to take it, and things just didn’t go our way,” Heller said. “Not only did we not play our best, it was one of those nights where the breaks didn’t go our way either.”
Now Iowa needs to win the final two games this weekend — 3:05 p.m. Saturday (come on over after the Iowa football spring game) and 11 a.m. Sunday — to avoid its first home series loss since 2014.
Left-hander Ryan Erickson (1-0, 3.90 ERA) has been plugged into Heller’s rotation on Saturday, in place of Tyler Peyton (last year’s Friday-night starter).
“We’re going to have to find a way to get something out of this weekend, for sure,” Heller said.