The Grimes native gave Iowa 6 1/3 quality innings in a 3-2 win over Ohio State. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral.com
MINNEAPOLIS – Rick Heller was thinking about Michigan, even before the Wolverines were officially Iowa's next opponent at the Big Ten Tournament.
That's how a baseball coach has to process things, and that's part of the reason Heller departed from his usual bullpen strategy during Wednesday's 3-2 win over Ohio State.
Heller went with right-handed closer Nick Hibbing to relieve starter Tyler Peyton in a 1-1 game in the seventh inning, instead of Ryan Erickson — even though the left-hander typically spelled Peyton during the regular season and Ohio State started six left-handed bats.
"The problem was, a lot of Ohio State's lefties hit lefties as good as righties, or at least even," Heller said. "We knew if we won the game, we were going to be facing Michigan, who is going to run a ton of left-handers out there. Their matchup is a lot better for Erickson than possibly Ohio State's."
Erickson will be the first guy Heller taps out of the bullpen, if it's needed, in Thursday's 5 p.m. game. The 34-23 Wolverines, whose .300 batting average was second in the Big Ten to Illinois by .001, were the only conference team to rough up Iowa right-hander Blake Hickman.
Hickman wound up with a no-decision in the Hawkeyes' 11-5 loss in Ann Arbor on May 2, but was tagged for four earned runs in 2 1/3 innings. Take the Michigan game away, and Hickman went 7-0 with a 1.79 ERA against the rest of the Big Ten.
Hickman was Iowa's only first-team all-conference selection, and if he can start things off right against the Wolverines, the Hawkeyes (39-14) would be one step closer to possibly hosting an NCAA regional for the first time in school history. Iowa dropped from a No. 1 to a No. 2 seed in the latest D1Baseball.com projections following a season-ending series loss at Rutgers.
Michigan starts six players with a .311 average or better, led by cleanup man Carmen Benedetti — who is hitting .367 with a slugging percentage over .540.
"Tough challenge for us," Heller said. "They're probably going to run possibly seven left-handers at Blake tomorrow.
"He's going to have to locate, he's going to have to be able to change speeds, because they can swing it. If it's not good, we'll go right to Erickson as soon as we have to."
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT: IOWA (39-14) VS. MICHIGAN (34-23)
- When, where: 5 p.m. CT Thursday, Target Field, Minneapolis
- At stake: The winner advances to a 1 p.m. Saturday winner's bracket game; the loser plays the Michigan-Indiana winner at 3:30 p.m. Friday.
- Television: Big Ten Network
- Pitching matchup: Iowa RH Blake Hickman (9-1, 2.75 ERA) vs. Michigan RH Ryan Nutof (4-3, 3.51)
- Quick hits: Iowa won two of three games when the teams met May 1-3 in Ann Arbor ... The Hawkeyes have allowed two earned runs or fewer in 31 games this season, including in Wednesday's 3-2 win over Ohio State ... Although OF Eric Toole went 0-for-4, he did reach base on an error. Iowa's leadoff man has reached base in 51 of 53 games.