Leistikow: Iowa baseball faces long comeback odds after biggest loss of season
OMAHA, Neb. — In order to repeat as Big Ten Tournament baseball champion…
In order to guarantee its season extends past this week at TD Ameritrade Park…
The Iowa baseball team will have to do something that hasn’t been done before…
And then win one more game after that.
"We’ve dug ourselves a pretty big hole," first baseman Chris Whelan accurately noted after the Hawkeyes' 2-1 loss in Wednesday's first round of the conference tournament at TD Ameritrade Park.
Getting one hit in 10 innings in the most important game of the season will do that to a team.
And while this five-day tournament offers second chances with a double-elimination format (except for the championship game), it’s an unfriendly format to any team that comes up short on Day One.
In fact, since the tournament expanded to eight teams in the 2014 season, not a single first-round loser has even clawed its way into the Sunday title game — much less emerge as champion.
Those are some steep odds for an Iowa team with an RPI of 66 that pundits already thought might have to win the whole thing here to grab a coveted NCAA regional berth.
For the record, Iowa coach Rick Heller disagreed with that thinking after Wednesday’s extra-inning loss (more on that later) — which was maddening for the Hawkeyes, to say the least.
They batted 1-for-30 (.033 average) for the day and didn’t put a runner past first base after scoring an unearned run in the second inning.
“And when we did barrel the ball up, it was either right at them or they made the play,” Heller said. “It was just a frustrating day.”
And certainly a damaging one for the Hawkeyes’ at-large NCAA hopes.
The talk in the press box afterward was that the only way Iowa (33-19) gets to a third regional in four years is if it leaves here without another loss.
That would mean going 5-0. Put another way, that'd mean five wins in less than 80 hours, with its best pitcher (Nick Allgeyer, who struck out nine in seven strong innings Wednesday) already spent.
Heller, who has been (correctly) touting Iowa’s resume as better than the RPI indicates, isn’t so sure another loss here would definitely put his season to an end.
“I still feel like we’re in a good spot if we can win a couple games,” Heller said. “A 2-1 loss to a good Michigan team in extra innings, it is what it is. Both of us are trying to get in. To say we have to win it? No. I think if we win some games, we’re still in good shape.”
No doubt, Hawkeye players can’t be thinking about trying to pull off five straight wins.
They needed to depart the ballpark Wednesday with one thing in mind: avoid being the first team eliminated from the Big Ten Tournament.
That means winning Thursday’s 9 a.m. consolation-bracket game against seventh-seeded Ohio State (34-21).
“We’re not going to look at the big picture too much,” Allgeyer said. “Just win as many ballgames as we can in a row. We rattled off five (straight) before we lost today. So we can do it.”
That five-game win streak did occur, but it came against Northwestern (RPI 231), Western Illinois (RPI 277) and three against Penn State (RPI 236).
This one, if it were to happen, would mean dispatching the likes of Ohio State, Purdue, Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois or maybe Michigan again. All of those teams have an RPI between 16 and 56, so in that sense, Heller’s right — possible good wins are out there.
And if we’re going to consider the possibility, it's worth mentioning that Iowa isn’t in bad shape with its arms. Only one reliever (Zach Daniels) was extended Wednesday.
Heller should feel good about Thursday starter Cole McDonald, a right-hander who looked fantastic in his return from injury last week.
Then he’d have red-hot freshman Jack Dreyer for a possible third game; and maybe Brady Schanuel (Iowa’s best raw talent on the mound, when he manages his control) after that.
But even if Iowa were to win three in row, it would need another two after that with who-knows-who on the mound…
Which shows just how difficult this week has become for the Hawkeyes.
“I don’t have any fear of our guys not being able to do it,” Heller said. “We’ve ran some (wins) off before. With the pitching situation being much better for us, with Cole and Jack and possibly Brady, too, we’re probably as set up for it as good as anybody at this point."
Heller then paused, before finishing his answer with a little chuckle.
“But if we get one hit in 10 innings," he said, "it probably won’t matter anyway."
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.