Iowa rotation in good shape for final series at Rutgers

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Setting up for the postseason will be an emphasis during Iowa's final regular-season baseball series, which begins Thursday at Rutgers.

The Hawkeyes' chances at a Big Ten regular-season championship hinge on at least two losses in three days from a second-ranked Illinois team that hasn't lost once since March 29. And no matter what happens, they can't dip below the No. 2 seed at next week's conference tournament in Minneapolis.

So the wheels were already turning in Rick Heller's head Sunday, following a three-game sweep of Minnesota that sent his Hawkeyes to 37-12 overall, 18-3 in the league and into a No. 13 national ranking by Collegiate Baseball — matching the 1990 high point reached by the last Hawkeye team to reach the NCAA tournament.

Heller kept his sparkling three-man rotation on lighter workloads during the Minnesota series and didn't even use one of his best relievers, Luke Vandermaten (2-0, 0.87 ERA in 31 innings).

That was part of the ideal plan and will allow Heller to keep No. 1 starter Tyler Peyton (6-3, 2.90) on a pitch count in Thursday's 2 p.m. opener against the Scarlet Knights (17-34-1, 5-16). With closer Nick Hibbing throwing four innings of relief Sunday, he'll likely be unavailable until Friday's noon game.

"We'll be able to go to Vandermaten for multiple innings if we choose to (and) let Hibbing have a little rest, then have him for the next two," Heller said.

Blake Hickman (8-1, 2.93) should be good to go Friday and Calvin Mathews (5-1, 1.77) on Saturday, each with one day less rest than usual.

"I feel a lot better going to Rutgers with how we were able to manage our pitching staff," Heller said. "We did not have to push Peyton deep, we did not have to push Blake deep and we did not have to push Calvin deep."

If Iowa maintains the No. 2 seed — the Hawkeyes would need to gain two games on the Illini (43-6-1, 19-1), who finish with a three-game series vs. Nebraska, to upgrade to No. 1 — it'd be on track for the Big Ten Tournament opener six days later, Wednesday at 1 p.m, against the No. 7 seed. Heller has Peyton pegged to start that game.

Indiana, Nebraska and Minnesota are vying for the Nos. 7-8 spots in the tournament, to be held at Target Field. Iowa went a combined 9-0 against those teams this season.

Though the Hawkeyes would need help to win the Big Ten regular-season title, they still have a shot in the final weekend — and with a sweep this would become the first Iowa team to win 40 games since 1985.

"We wanted to compete for the championship, which we have," Heller said. "We wanted to do it until the last day."