Rick Heller thinks yeah, maybe, after an 8-2 win at the Big Ten tournament.
OMAHA, Neb. — Joel Booker used his bat to deliver five hits Wednesday, tying a Big Ten Conference tournament record.
But it was the senior outfielder’s legs that provided the defining moment of the Hawkeyes’ 8-2, first-round thrashing of top-seeded Minnesota at TD Ameritrade Park.
Booker scored all the way from first base on Mason McCoy’s second-inning bloop single to right-center field.
“(Coaches) preach on watching your outfielders, and (seeing) what they do whenever they throw the ball in,” Booker said.
When he saw Minnesota's three converging fielders hesitate ever-so-slightly?
“I just put on the burners and ran home,” Booker said.
The Iowa senior went 5-for-5 with a walk against Minnesota.
More than that aggression giving the Hawkeyes a 5-0 lead, it showed they were here for more than just participation. It also showed Minnesota got caught flat-footed by one of the league's hottest teams.
“We didn’t want to be here just to be in the tournament," said Rick Heller, whose first two Iowa teams left the Big Ten tourney with 1-2 records. "We wanted to come down here and play to win the thing. We looked at it as a fresh start.”
Iowa (28-25) mashed 18 hits — with the top five in the order going 15-for-26 — to power its way into a winner’s-bracket game at 9 p.m. Thursday against Ohio State, which beat Michigan.
The Hawkeyes did it against Minnesota starter Matt Fielder, the Big Ten player of the year. Fiedler was roughed up in 2⅓ innings, suffering his first loss since March.
“I don’t think they saw that coming at all," Iowa senior Tyler Peyton said. "You have the Big Ten player of the year on the mound for them, they won the Big Ten title, the coach of the year … they had everything going. We caught them by surprise.”
Iowa's senior collected four of the team's 18 hits.
A day after being named first-team all-Big Ten, Booker reached base all six times he batted with five singles and a ninth-inning walk. For good measure, he also stole a base, his 23rd in 25 attempts.
“I got a little help from the baseball gods. I didn’t barrel many balls today," said Booker, who upped his team-best average to .373. "They just found holes and dropped. I’m seeing it pretty well, though.”
So are his teammates.
Peyton had four hits, falling a home run short of the cycle. McCoy drove in two runs. Austin Guzzo had three hits, including his torpedo of a double with two outs in the first inning that gave Iowa a tone-setting 2-0 lead.
Minnesota (34-19) couldn't answer and dropped into the loser's bracket alongside No. 2 seed Nebraska and No. 3 Indiana.
“We’re lucky it wasn’t worse, because we pitched ourselves out of some jams," longtime Gophers coach John Anderson said. "But you can’t let the lead-off man on in seven of the nine innings.”
The Hawkeyes have been in survival mode for a few weeks, piecing together a five-game winning streak down the stretch to eke into this five-day, double-elimination tournament as the eighth and final seed on a tiebreaker.
Iowa has known for weeks, if not months, after a 6-11 start to the season that its only chance to make the NCAA Tournament was to win here at the hallowed home of the College World Series. Wednesday certainly served as an impressive start, with sophomore C.J. Eldred throwing seven solid innings and getting hefty run support that eluded him during a 2-8 regular season.
“I wasn’t really sure what to do," Eldred said of the rare run support, soliciting laughs during postgame interviews from adjacent coach Rick Heller and Peyton. Eldred picked up his first win since the Big Ten opener March 25. "To jump out with a lead like that, especially against a team like Minnesota, a good ballclub — that definitely does help you relax.”
Now, Iowa is well-positioned to make further noise. Peyton, the Hawkeyes’ hottest pitcher with a 23-inning scoreless streak, will start Thursday’s contest. And with Eldred's effective, 96-pitch performance, Heller was able to save key long reliever Nick Gallagher.
If Iowa wins Thursday, it would bypass Friday’s consolation-bracket schedule and reach Saturday’s final four with a loss to spare.
“You win Game 1, and then obviously Game 2’s really important if you want to make a run," Heller said. "You get those two, and you’re sitting pretty good.”
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT RESULTS, SCHEDULE
All games televised on Big Ten Network
No. 6 Maryland 5, No. 3 Indiana 3
No. 7 Michigan State 5, No. 2 Nebraska 1
No. 8 Iowa 8, No. 1 Minnesota 2
No. 4 Ohio State 8, No. 5 Michigan 3
9 a.m.: Indiana vs. Nebraska
1 p.m.: Minnesota vs. Michigan
5 p.m.: Maryland vs. Michigan State
9 p.m. Iowa vs. Ohio State