Six reasons Iowa can make a deep Big Ten run
MINNEAPOLIS – All baseball season long, Iowa has ridden its all-junior starting rotation of Tyler Peyton, Blake Hickman and Calvin Mathews to nearly unprecedented program success.
But it's not just the "Big Three" leading for Rick Heller's Hawkeyes. As they enter the postseason, it's more like a "Pick Six."
As in, the second-year coach can pick any of Iowa's top six pitchers — including relievers Ryan Erickson, Nick Hibbing and Luke Vandermaten — and feel extremely comfortable.
"I'm pleased with where the starters are," Heller said, "but even more pleased where our relievers are. They've just been lights-out."
The top six threw 91.4 percent of Iowa's Big Ten Conference innings (1942/3 of 213), compiling a 2.50 ERA.
"All you've got to do is score a couple of runs," Hawkeye leadoff man Eric Toole said, "and you know you should come out with a victory."
When No. 15-ranked Iowa (38-14) plays Ohio State (35-17) at 1 p.m. Wednesday in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament at Target Field, Peyton will throw the first pitch.
Even though Peyton's ERA (3.32) is the highest in the all-right-handed rotation and he's coming off a rocky performance against Rutgers, it was a logical decision for Heller. Peyton is a fierce competitor and has been Iowa's No. 1 starter all year, with team-highs in innings (811/3) and strikeouts (62).
His routine lately was thrown off by a foot injury and shortened rest between starts. But he should be fresh for the Buckeyes after throwing only 68 pitches (in 32/3 innings, allowing five runs) in Thursday's loss to Rutgers.
"He'll learn from it and forget about it," teammate Jake Mangler said. "I expect him to go out Wednesday and throw his best and give us a chance to win."
This is a double-elimination tournament, which also plays into second-seeded Iowa's hands. No matter what happens Wednesday, Hickman — the team's most dominant starter with a 9-1 record, 2.75 ERA and 96 mph fastball — will start Thursday in the team's second game (at 5 p.m. in the winner's bracket, 9 a.m. otherwise).
If Iowa wins its first two games to collect 40 victories for the first time since 1985, it would get the luxuries of Friday off and Mathews (5-2, 2.08) on the mound Saturday with a Big Ten title-game berth on the line.
Heller has done a masterful job of managing pitch counts to get into this ideal situation — he admitted it doesn't always work out that way. After the Big Tens, Iowa will almost certainly be awarded a spot in the NCAA regionals for the fourth time in school history (and first since 1990), so he'll be thinking ahead about that, too, with every ball and strike at Target Field.
Despite a series loss at Rutgers, Heller got valuable last looks at each of his top relievers.
Erickson (4-0, 1.93 ERA) threw 41/3 scoreless innings in the first game; Hibbing (2-1, 1.67, seven saves) tossed 32/3 scoreless in the second; and Vandermaten (2-0, 0.77, four saves) threw four scoreless in the third.
"We tried to stretch them out just a little bit more these last two weeks, just in case we had to go to the pen early, like in Game 1 or Game 2," Heller said. "Hopefully that doesn't happen, but we're prepared to do whatever we have to do to give ourselves a chance to win."
The same goes for Peyton, probably the only starter to have a realistic chance to bounce back for a possible championship game Sunday.
"It all depends how many pitches I throw (Wednesday)," Peyton said. "If they need me, I'm not going to say no. I'm going to go out there until my arm falls off."
The old adage that pitching and defense wins championships is certainly true for Iowa, which ranks seventh nationally in fielding percentage (.979), ninth in hits allowed per nine innings (7.57) and 10th in ERA (2.90).
Those figures are examples of why the Hawkeyes haven't fallen into any prolonged slumps. Wednesday's game is their 13th following a loss; they're 10-2 in such games this season.
Heller admittedly doesn't talk much about wins and losses with his team. Instead, he preaches to his players to keep competing.
"We don't have to be anything different than what we've been," said Heller, whose 68 wins are more than any other Iowa coach has amassed in his first two seasons.
Another goal Heller and his players have discussed since the beginning of the season: winning a Big Ten championship.
That didn't quite happen in the regular season, as top-seeded llinois (45-6-1) carries an unbelievable 26-game winning streak into Minneapolis. Iowa, at 19-5, had the highest Big Ten winning percentage (.792) for a second-place team since the conference returned to single-division play in 1988.
Because of its pitching and defense, Iowa probably has the best shot of anyone to take down the Illini.
"It sucks that we couldn't win it. Illinois had a great year. You can't be mad about it," Hickman said. "Going into Big Ten, we definitely feel we can win it. If you don't feel that way, something's wrong with you."
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE, TV
Wednesday's games (All times CT)
9 a.m. — No. 3 Michigan (33-23) vs. No. 6 Indiana (32-20), BTN Plus
1 p.m. — No. 2 Iowa (38-14) vs. No. 7 Ohio State (35-18), BTN Plus
5 p.m. — No. 1 Illinois (45-6-1) vs. No. 8 Nebraska (34-21), BTN
9 p.m. — No. 4 Maryland (36-20) vs. No. 5 Michigan State (33-31), BTN
9 a.m. — Michigan/Indiana loser vs. Iowa/Ohio State loser, BTN Plus (Game 5)
1 p.m. — Illinois/Nebraska loser vs. Maryland/Michigan State loser, BTN Plus (Game 6)
5 p.m. — Michigan/Indiana winner vs. Iowa/Ohio State winner, BTN (Game 7)
9 p.m. — Illinois/Nebraska winner vs. Maryland/Michigan State winner, BTN (Game 8)
3:30 p.m. — Loser Game 7 vs. Winner Game 5, BTN (Game 9)
7:30 p.m. — Loser Game 8 vs. Winner Game 6, BTN (Game 10)
9 a.m. — Winner Game 9 vs. Winner Game 8, BTN (Game 11)
1 p.m. — Winner Game 10 vs. Winner Game 7, BTN (Game 12)
5 p.m. — Winner Game 11 vs. Loser Game 11, BTN (if necessary)
9 p.m. — Winner Game 12 vs. Loser Game 12, BTN (if necessary)
1 p.m. — Championship, BTN
BREAKING DOWN THE HAWKEYES
Game 1 pitchers — Iowa RH Tyler Peyton (6-4, 3.32 ERA) vs. Ohio State RH Travis Lakins (4-4, 3.99)
On the radio — KXIC-AM (800), Iowa City, and KMJM-AM (1360), Cedar Rapids, will broadcast the opener. It can also be heard on hawkeyesports.com (subscription required).
Quick hits — The Hawkeyes are entering the 10th Big Ten Tournament in school history and second in a row. Iowa went 1-2 last year in Omaha, Neb. ... The Hawkeyes are 10-2 against this year's entrants. They didn't face Illinois, Ohio State or Michigan State. ... With two wins, the Hawkeyes would earn their first 40-win season since 1985. ... Senior LF Kris Goodman is one of the hottest Hawkeyes. He's batting .363 in his last 19 games. ... In 52 games, Iowa has committed 43 errors, fewest in the Big Ten, and has turned 42 double plays. It ranks No. 7 nationally in fielding percentage (.979). ... Senior CF Eric Toole has reached safely in 50 of 52 games this season and ranks sixth in the Big Ten with 72 hits.
Follow our coverage — Hawkeye sports reporter Chad Leistikow will be at Target Field this week. Follow his coverage on Twitter @ChadLeistikow.