Buzz continues to build around Heller, Hawkeye baseball

Chad Leistikow
The Hawkeyes are off to a 6-0 start in the Big Ten Conference for the first time in school history. Here, they celebrate a win over Indiana.

Iowa's blazing start to the Big Ten Conference season has meant accolades — and an active cell phone for the head coach.

Rick Heller is in demand and in the spotlight as he's led the Hawkeyes into uncharted territory. For the first time in school history, Iowa is 6-0 in Big Ten play.

"There's a lot of buzz about our program," Iowa's second-year coach said Monday, a day after his nationally-ranked Hawkeyes completed a three-game sweep at Purdue. "A lot of people are calling to talk to me."

This is a new feeling in Hawkeye baseball circles. In the past, even qualifying for the Big Ten Conference Tournament was a victory. Now, there's real discussion whether this team can win a Big Ten championship.

"I told the team last night when we got off the bus, enjoy the series win over Purdue, but we need to keep our heads straight," Heller said. "A lot of people are going to say nice things about us this week."

Iowa (21-7) moved up nine spots, to 15th, in the Collegiate Baseball poll released this week while also cracking into the Baseball America and Perfect Game rankings at the No. 25 spot. Iowa is one spot outside the coaches' top 25.

That national recognition is something this Hawkeye group had cautious optimism about during the offseason.

Look no further than Grimes native Tyler Peyton as a concrete example. The junior transfer from Iowa Central Community College is the every-day first baseman and is hitting .362. More importantly, the junior has excelled as Iowa's No. 1 starting pitcher — the prestigious Friday-night spot in a Big Ten series. He threw a five-hit shutout in the conference-opening 2-0 win over Indiana, which entered ranked No. 19 nationally.

All Iowa did was sweep the Hoosiers behind the 1-2-3 pitching punch of Peyton (4-2, 2.17 ERA), big-league prospect Blake Hickman (4-1, 3.13 ERA) and Calvin Mathews, last year's No. 1 starter who now gets the ball on Sundays and has a 1.25 ERA in 36 innings.

Heller thought Peyton-Hickman-Mathews gave his club its "best chance to win the league." So far, so good.

"We felt like we had to go that route, to see if Tyler Peyton was capable of handling the Friday-night duties," Heller said. "We've kind of eased him into it … now he's hitting his stride at the right time."

Heller said Peyton's fastball is up about 3 mph from a year ago, in the 90-93 mph range, which has made all the difference in the world in setting up his off-speed pitches.

And with the pitching working well — the staff ERA is 2.76 — the hitting has followed.

"Our pitchers are doing a great job," said leadoff man Eric Toole, who was Big Ten player of the week after the Indiana sweep, "to where our hitters don't feel worried about anything."

That was evident in the Purdue series, where Iowa scored eight runs in the eighth inning to rally past the Boilermakers 10-5 on Saturday.

Toole has been at the front of it all. The center fielder from Council Bluffs is batting .365 and is 18-for-20 on stolen bases.

Defense is a Heller hallmark that can't be forgotten. With second baseman Jake Mangler and shortstop Nick Roscetti up the middle, Iowa has committed just 22 errors in 28 games (compared with 37 for their opponents).

Pitching, hitting and defense — that formula always has been tough to beat in baseball.

The Hawkeyes can't get too high. They travel to Maryland (22-7, 7-2 Big Ten) for a huge three-game series this weekend.

Keep winning, and talk of a possible Big Ten championship and a postseason appearance will escalate.

"As long as we keep playing the way we do, it'll work itself out," Toole said. "It's nothing we can sit here and talk about right now, because we have half the season left. We just have to keep playing Iowa baseball."