OMAHA, Neb. – Eighth-seeded Iowa’s upstart bid this week at the Big Ten Conference baseball tournament comes with an added, not-by-design challenge.
The Hawkeyes essentially are down to one catcher.
A tweaked muscle, a collision at home plate, a foul tip that caroms at 90 mph into a throwing-hand finger — and they’re in big trouble.
“It’s a little scary, more than anything,” third-year coach Rick Heller said. “Because there’s really nothing you can do.”
Daniel Aaron Moriel is the last man standing. (Or last man squatting, to be more accurate.) The senior from California had the blisters to prove it after catching 30 innings in about 24 hours in a compressed three-game series last weekend at Penn State.
Moriel admitted he was still hurting Friday morning — less than 12 hours before a scheduled 9 p.m. first pitch of a second-round winners' bracket game against Ohio State (which was later postponed) at TD Ameritrade Park.
“They tell me, 'Don’t push it when I don’t need to,'” he said.
If you know baseball, you know being down to one catcher is precarious. The added gear and squatting 150-plus times in three hours is only part of the position's taxing nature. It’s mentally draining, too, with the pressure of making sure every pitch is directed to a precise location while also being tuned-in to every possible scenario with runners on base.
There are no moments off.
"And Daniel’s been a magnet here lately," Heller said with a what-can-you-do chuckle. "It seems like he’s been hit by so many foul tips since Jimmy (Frankos) got hurt."
Sure, Iowa has an emergency option in sophomore Austin Guzzo (who caught once in 53 games this year). But going down that road would be like a football team going to its scout-team quarterback in the biggest game of the season. Not ideal.
Iowa (28-25 after Wednesday’s 8-2 opening-round win over Minnesota) finds itself in this position because of a serious hamstring injury Frankos suffered two weeks ago. The fourth-year Hawkeye catcher crumpled to the ground after he rounded third base in a game against Michigan State.
“I tried turning on the after-burners but they weren’t there,” Frankos said. “I kind of heard it pop.”
Frankos, a .307 hitter who rarely strikes out, caught 13 of Iowa’s first 16 Big Ten games. But he’s been mostly out of the picture since.
He was at the heart-warming center of one of the most memorable Hawkeye moments this season — a sacrifice bunt that didn’t lead to any runs in a game Iowa lost.
Though he’s so hobbled he can barely run, Frankos was called upon to pinch-hit in the 12th inning of last week’s regular-season finale against Penn State. He laid down a beauty of a bunt, moving Iowa's runners to second and third.
“Saw one pitch, and put where I had to put it. Didn’t really have much running to first base,” Frankos said. “But the dugout loved it. You’d have thought I just hit a walk-off grand slam.”
If that ends up being the last at-bat of Frankos’ Iowa career, he's OK with that. He's been a team-first guy from the dugout of late, even joking he's become a "student coach." He gives advice to Moriel, in his second year in the program, on positioning and whether opponents might be tipping pitches.
Frankos isn't going to discount a plate appearance this week, a la Roy Hobbs at the end of "The Natural."
But he can't really run, and he definitely can't catch. He knows the clock is ticking. If Iowa can somehow win the whole tournament this week, it’d mean an automatic NCAA Tournament bid — an extension to the season and another week for Frankos to heal.
Moriel is aware of the same clock. But he knows he's not coming off the field. Unless there's no other choice.
“Hopefully the legs don’t give out,” said Moriel, who hits .257 with a little pop (four homers, tied for second on the team). “I’m going to leave everything I have out there. It’s going to be the last time I play baseball. I’m not going to hold anything back.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
Iowa was scheduled to play Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament at 9 p.m. Thursday in Omaha.