IOWA City, Ia. -- What a finish.
Two diving catches by the Iowa baseball team in the top of the ninth inning clinched a 4-3 win over Nebraska Saturday at Banks Field in Iowa City.
Iowa (28-11, 11-2 Big Ten) led 4-2 entering the final frame, but Nebraska (30-14, 6-7) rallied for one run and could have scored a lot more.
Center fielder Eric Toole made a diving catch to retire Nebraska second baseman Jake Schleppenbach with runners on first and second and no outs, bringing the crowd to their feet. In the very next at-bat, Nebraska's Ben Miller — who earlier hit a two-run home run in the sixth — smoked a pitch into the right center field gap, where right fielder Joel Booker made a diving stop.
Iowa induced a ground out with the bases loaded three batters later to end the game.
"I was kind of playing (opposite field) on (Schleppenbach), he had been hitting ball there all day," Toole said. "I got a good jump on the ball. I knew I was going to have to dive. I knew (left fielder John Barrett) wasn't going to be able to get to it, so it was one of those things where, if I make the catch I make the catch, and if I don't, hopefully the runners are only on second and third.
"Then Booker after that was outstanding. He ran all the way into center field. I was playing oppo again. I screamed at him when it was hit that it was his ball, and he made an outstanding catch. That saved us."
The Hawkeyes established the tone with three runs in the first inning behind starting pitcher Blake Hickman.
Shortstop Nick Roscetti and catcher Jimmy Frankos recorded two-out singles, scoring two and one run respectively, as Iowa staked out a 3-0 advantage. In the seventh, Jake Mangler also had an RBI single to complete the scoring for coach Rick Heller's club.
"It was nice of us to score early and do it with two outs," Heller said. "It made everyone take a deep breath and just let Blake go out and pitch. We knew it was going to be a tight game and every run would be valuable."
Hickman (7-1) left after 52/3 innings pitched, allowing two runs on three hits while walking three and striking out three. The junior is now 5-0 with a 2.10 ERA and 19 strikeouts in five Big Ten starts this season. The five wins is tied for the league lead.
Hickman's fastball hit 96 mph on the radar gun multiple times as he continued to build his MLB Draft profile.
"I'm staying confident in myself and my routine," Hickman said. "Keep working on my pitches and stay down in the zone. These guys are doing an unbelievable job behind me and with the bats, so it's not just me."
Iowa began the pivotal three-game set with the Cornhuskers Saturday after Friday's contest was postponed due to rain. The two schools will meet up for a doubleheader at noon Sunday to complete the series.
The Black and Gold have won five straight Big Ten series dating back to last spring, including four this season. They have never won six in a row in school history.
If the Hawkeyes at least split on Sunday, that would be another bullet point in what is becoming a lengthy achievement list under Heller, who is in his second year at the helm. Another example — Saturday's win was the 11th in the conference this season. They won 10 conference games all of last season.
Can Iowa keep rolling?
"Every single weekend, we feel like we can win the series," Hickman said. "No matter what the other team has going, we just feel like we're the better team every single weekend. That's how we carried ourselves all winter, early in the season, and now we've continued to do that.
"We need to keep fighting."
Reach Matt Cozzi at email@example.com or 319-887-5409, and follow him on Twitter at @matt_cozzi.