Two-way Iowa star Tyler Peyton was savvy find for Heller

Chad Leistikow
Iowa junior Tyler Peyton grew up in Grimes as a Hawkeye fan and always wanted to play Division I baseball in the Midwest.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – One of the first and smartest things Rick Heller did after becoming Iowa's baseball coach was reach out to a freshman at Iowa Central Community College named Tyler Peyton.

Coach's kid, check. Always wanted to be a Hawkeye, check. Good hitter and pitcher, big check.

Heller was sold on everything the former state champion from Grimes could inject into an Iowa program that needed some life.

"The opportunity that was presented to me," Peyton says now, "I could not turn down."

Other Division I coaches were recruiting Peyton out of Iowa Central in Fort Dodge, but only Heller wanted him right away after one season.

Heller, who now has the Hawkeyes humming in his second season with a No. 15 national ranking and 34-12 record, called the addition of Peyton "huge" in speeding up what has been a stirring program turnaround.

"You're getting two players for one," Heller said. "A guy that could potentially be your Friday-night starter down the road and be a middle-of-the-lineup hitter."

Tyler Peyton (7) approaches the Class 3-A championship trophy in 2012 at Principal Park. He played for his dad, Byron, at Dallas Center-Grimes.

Peyton's dad is 15th-year Dallas Center-Grimes baseball coach Byron Peyton. The Mustangs have become a pitching factory, starting with the emergence of Tony Watson (now a major-league All-Star with the Pittsburgh Pirates) in the early 2000s.

Heller made a savvy move to tap into that pipeline — hard-throwing DC-G senior Cole Baker is one of the Hawkeyes' marquee signees in their 2015 recruiting class. And in Peyton, who led the Mustangs to the Class 3-A championship in 2012, Heller found a guy that loves to compete.

"He was just hungry to be on a winning team and help a team to win," Byron Peyton said. "It didn't matter if it was baseball or basketball or football."

Peyton was an instant hit at the plate. He batted .331 in his first season, second on an Iowa team that won 30 games for just the third time in 21 years.

And entering the three-game series with Minnesota that begins at 6:05 p.m. Friday at Duane Banks Field, the junior is hitting a team-best .357 this season — sixth in the Big Ten Conference.

That success has surprised even Peyton.

"I was honestly thinking I didn't know if I could hit at this level," Peyton said. "I stayed with an approach that I brought here, and it worked out. I never really thought I'd go this far with everything."

The "everything" includes the impressive two-way player Peyton has become, even while battling a foot injury the past few weeks. Before the Big Ten season, Heller also tabbed him as the team's No. 1 starting pitcher in three-game conference series. That Friday-night stage puts Peyton against other premier starters. He has responded with a 5-3 record and 3.06 ERA (a big drop from last year's 4.86) in 12 starts.

Tyler Peyton leads the Hawkeyes in innings pitched (70 2/3) and batting average (.357).

Making him the Friday guy, Heller thought, would give Iowa its best chance at a Big Ten championship. It lets Peyton be fresh when he takes the mound, since he also bats third in the lineup; it allows big-league prospect Blake Hickman, who is still learning as a first-year full-time pitcher, to better study opposing lineups for his Saturday starts; and it gives maximum bullpen support for Sunday starter Calvin Mathews, whose workload is slightly limited after injury struggles a year ago.

"It's kind of hard (to do both), but at the same time it's fun," said Peyton, recently named to the watch list for the John Olerud Award as the nation's top two-way player.

Last year when Iowa led the Big Ten in hitting, Peyton did not bat on the same day he pitched.

But earlier this year, Heller decided he needed Peyton in the lineup every night, even when he was pitching.

"I remember going up to him and said, here's the deal: I know you don't like to," Heller recalled, "but from here on out you're going to have to — because it's crazy for us to not have you lineup.

"And he goes out and gets two hits the first night he does it."

Peyton can laugh about his apprehension now. It's all worked out well — the Hawkeyes are in second place in the Big Ten at 15-3.

"I wasn't going to say no," he said. "It kind of went from there."

Just like Iowa's baseball success.

Iowa junior Tyler Peyton grew up in Grimes as a Hawkeye fan and always wanted to play Division I baseball in the Midwest.