Sluggers Peyton Williams, Keaton Anthony keeping Iowa baseball in the Big Ten, NCAA hunt

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central
Keaton Anthony, right, and Peyton Williams (45) would have combined for at least 30 home runs, coach Rick Heller says, if not for a terrible spring of wind-blowing-in weather.

Peyton Williams and Keaton Anthony were injury buddies in the spring of 2021.

A year later, they have become Iowa baseball’s version of the bash brothers.

In a season where random injuries have taken a toll on Rick Heller’s batting, Williams and Anthony have been ball-clubbing forces that have kept the Hawkeyes in the hunt for a Big Ten Conference title and an NCAA tournament berth.

“They’ve meant pretty much everything,” Heller said. “… Even when things were crumbling with injuries on both sides of them, they kept us afloat during those times. And not only kept us afloat but carried us a good chunk of the year.”

Williams, Iowa’s No. 2 hitter, is ranked the eighth-best first baseman in the country by D1 Baseball. The left-hander is batting a team-best .370 and his 1.161 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) ranks third in the Big Ten.

Anthony, from the right side and the No. 3 spot in Heller’s order, has been named Big Ten freshman of the week five times and is fifth in the league in OPS (1.088).

They account for 55.6% of Iowa’s home runs (20 of 36) and 32.5% of its RBIs (77 of 237). With 10 home runs apiece, they are the first Hawkeye teammates with 10-plus homers in a season since 1990 — when Tim Costo (16), Keith Noreen (12) and Chris Hatcher (11) got to double digits.

Perhaps most remarkably, they’ve accounted for this power surge amid a brutally cold spring in the Midwest.

“Peyton would probably have 17 homers — maybe more — and Keaton 14 or 15 if we hadn’t played the entire season with the wind blowing in our face,” Heller said. “It’s impressive … in a year that’s probably been as bad as it’s ever been for hitting home runs.”

Two sweet swings

In Sunday’s series-finale win against Purdue, Anthony clobbered a first-inning slider 442 feet over the left-field scoreboard at Banks Stadium. It was the second straight day that he cleared the scoreboard at Iowa’s home field, and a sign of just how far Anthony has come … not only geographically, but with his game.

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The Georgia native’s path to Iowa was an unlikely one. The Hawkeyes’ familiarity with Anthony stemmed from Nic Ungs, the team’s fifth-year director of operations. Ungs previously worked as the pitching coordinator of the Atlanta-based Georgia Bombers, which was Anthony’s club team. And though he had lived in Georgia since age 1, Anthony had an affinity for the Midwest. His parents were Indiana alums and they would often visit family in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

“I was always watching Big Ten basketball (and) Big Ten football over SEC stuff,” Anthony said.

Keaton Anthony said he's never hit more than three homers in a season at any level of baseball. He has 10 this year for the Hawkeyes.

He wound up taking recruiting visits to Iowa and Indiana on the same weekend. He was swayed by the new feel and opportunity of Iowa City over the more familiar setting of Bloomington, Indiana.

But his first year at Iowa was tough. In the first week of the season, he pulled a hamstring. A week later, he was chasing a bunt and felt his hamstring pop. A torn hamstring was the diagnosis, and by the time his eight-week recovery was complete, the Hawkeyes’ season was almost over. The decision was made for him to redshirt.

“It was a struggle for me when the team would travel (for road games), and I’d be sitting in my dorm room alone and watching on TV,” Anthony said. “That was hard for me, but it probably motivated me.”

Also during that time, he and Williams would often find themselves with trainers together. While Anthony wasn't playing, Williams remained a fixture in the lineup despite an early-season hamstring injury and mid-season quadriceps injury.

“We ended up being with each other a lot,” Williams said, “so that really helped our relationship grow.”

Williams — a top hitting prospect from Johnston — played through his injuries and produced good numbers in 2021: a .295 average with six homers and a Big Ten-leading 34 walks. 

But as he and Anthony discussed while being slowed by injuries in 2021, Williams knew he could do so much more. A postseason evaluation revealed a torn quadriceps, and he spent his summer on recovery instead of the Cape Cod League. The rest helped him find a rhythm for the first time as a Hawkeye.

Williams points to a two-run home run at Nebraska in a 5-3, 10-inning win recently as a high point this season.

“They get a really good crowd and an especially big crowd when we’re there,” Williams said. “They’re not really big fans of us.”

Anthony, meanwhile, has gone from a career doubles hitter — he said his previous high for home runs in a season at any level was three — to a power hitter. He credits Heller and hitting coach Marty Sutherland for helping his swing obtain a desired launch angle of 25 to 30 degrees.

“They worked on my swing and helped me get into more of a launch position,” Anthony said. “That has drastically helped me.”

Peyton Williams has been an invaluable piece to the Iowa lineup in the No. 2 spot this season.

What’s next for the duo?

Williams is likely in his final weeks as a Hawkeye. He is draft-eligible, and according to one National League scout who talked with the Des Moines Register, Williams projects to be taken in Rounds 5 through 12 in June.

Anthony has at least another year of Hawkeye baseball ahead … and maybe not just at the plate. Recruited as a two-way prospect, Anthony's fastball jumped from 88 mph to 93 mph in the fall to go with a plus slider and change-up.

Iowa has needed his bat more than his arm this year, so he’s only pitched two game innings but he still works on his pitching craft weekly. Heller thinks Anthony is good enough to be a weekend starter in 2023.

But more urgently on the calendar, Williams and Anthony are eyeing a three-game series that starts Friday at Michigan State. Urgency is high. D1 Baseball’s latest 64-team projection has Iowa missing the NCAA field; yet Baseball America listed Iowa among the "last four in" the tournament. The Hawkeyes (28-16 overall) are tied for second in the league standings at 12-6 (3½ games behind first-place Rutgers with six to play) and can improve their case with a high conference finish.

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And while the Hawkeyes’ pitching staff is by far the best in the Big Ten (3.50 ERA), the lineup has been lagging ... except for the two main guys.

The return of veteran Izaya Fullard from a broken hamate bone (wrist) has helped give the lineup a little more juice, but Iowa cannot afford to have Williams or Anthony experience a lull.

“Somebody has to do damage if they walk them,” Heller said.

And not lost on Anthony: The Hawkeyes’ regular season-ending series is against Indiana, May 19-21 in Iowa City. This will mark the first time that Anthony will have faced his parents’ alma mater. A slew of family will be coming in from Fort Wayne to watch.

No doubt he will want to leave his mark.

“I’m really excited,” Anthony said. “It’s been circled on my calendar for a while.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.