As #Hellerball trends up, Hawkeyes still chasing Illini
As the amazing run continues, the question shifts: How high can this Iowa baseball team climb?
Believe it or not, the Hawkeyes (30-11 overall) have actually lost ground In the Big Ten Conference standings while winning seven of their past eight league games. At 13-2 in the Big Ten following a three-game sweep of Nebraska, they're a half-game behind first-place Illinois (36-6, 13-1), which has won school-record 17 in a row overall.
Since Illinois isn't one of eight Big Ten opponents on their 24-game Big Ten schedule, the Hawkeyes need to win and get help in order to win their first conference title since 1990.
Up next is a crucial three-day weekend — Illinois visits third-place Ohio State (31-10, 12-3), while Iowa travels to fifth-place Michigan (27-17, 11-7).
"There's nothing we can do to control it," Iowa second-year coach Rick Heller said of the Fighting Illini. "They're good. We all knew they were loaded this year. It's not surprising what they're doing by any stretch. Their pitching is unbelievable."
Regardless of whether Iowa can keep the good times rolling, as it did with three home wins over Nebraska in just more than 24 hours, it's looking more and more like the Hawkeyes are on the doorstep of something big — qualifying for the NCAA regional tournament for just the fourth time in school history.
Iowa's profile continues to ascend as it climbs in the national polls (up to 15th via Collegiate Baseball and 16th by Baseball America), and its top-30 RPI would entrench its case to be among the 64 teams playing for eight spots in the College World Series.
"You have to finish it out," Heller said. "You have to play well down the stretch and hopefully make a good showing in the conference. If that happens, I don't know why we wouldn't (be an NCAA qualifier)."
Against the Cornhuskers, Iowa got it done with pitching, defense and timely hits. (On Twitter, that's also known as #Hellerball.)
Junior catcher Jimmy Frankos was named co-Big Ten player of the week Monday; it was his walk-off single that won Sunday's doubleheader opener 3-2 in 10 innings.
And in the series finale, No. 1 starting pitcher Tyler Peyton of Grimes battled through a foot injury to deliver one of his best performances (81/3 innings, nine strikeouts) in a 5-1 win before a sellout crowd of 2,506 at Duane Banks Field.
"It's definitely a testament to the toughness of the guys," Heller said. "The atmosphere and intensity of those games was off the charts."
Iowa hosts Sacramento State (22-21) at 4:05 p.m. Tuesday, but its rotation for Michigan is uncertain. Heller said regular Saturday starter Blake Hickman (5-0 in five Big Ten starts) will pitch Friday night, with the hope that Peyton is OK by Saturday. Heller prefers to keep Calvin Mathews in his usual Sunday spot.
"We all know how fine that line is between winning and losing, if you look at our games," Heller said of his Hawkeyes, who are 12-5 in games decided by two runs or less and 3-0 in extra innings. "Anybody can beat anybody if you don't show up and play. We've got a huge week at Michigan, which I think is going to be one of our toughest challenges of the season."
BIG TEN BASEBALL TITLE CHASE
Who the top contenders play in the final three weekends (all three-game series) in the conference season (with Big Ten records):
• Illinois (13-1)* — at Ohio State (12-3), vs. Rutgers (5-10), vs. Nebraska (6-9).
• Iowa (13-2) — at Michigan (11-7), vs. Minnesota (7-11), at Rutgers (5-10).
• Ohio State (12-3) — vs. Illinois (13-1), vs. Maryland (11-4), at Indiana (6-10).
• Maryland (11-4) — vs. Indiana (6-10), at Ohio State (12-3), at Northwestern (4-11).
• Michigan (11-7) — vs. Iowa (13-2), vs. Northwestern (4-11).
*Illinois' series against Indiana was shortened to two games because of weather. The lost game won't be made up.