Iowa baseball: 10 summer topics, and why optimism is soaring
Perhaps the calendar's most precarious stretch for Division I baseball coaches has ended, and while Iowa's Rick Heller took a few hits he reached the other side in one piece.
The Major League Baseball draft and the month of decisions following can decimate college rosters without time or available talent to replenish lost resources. On top of senior departures, the draft poached the Hawkeyes' first all-American since 1999 in pitcher Blake Hickman (seventh round) and Norwalk High School pitcher Chris Comito (15th round).
There's one more roster bullet to side-step (more on that later), but with high school infielder Daniel Perry's recent announcement he'll attend Iowa over starting his pro career — his status was unclear since June 10, when the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in the 13th round — it's a good time to take inventory on Hawkeye baseball.
Here are 10 summer story lines for Heller's Hawkeyes, who are coming off a program-changing 41-18 season and their first NCAA regional appearance since 1990:
There was no bigger summer victory for Heller than learning that Tyler Peyton would return to Iowa for his senior year after being chosen in the 33rd round by the Cincinnati Reds.
The former Dallas Center-Grimes star became Iowa's No. 1 starting pitcher last season — and delivered the school's first NCAA regional victory in 43 years by beating Oregon — and was the Hawkeyes' leading hitter (.337) from the No. 3 hole. He becomes a 2016 centerpiece for Heller.
"It's huge that Tyler came back. It means so much to the program," Heller said. "The things that Tyler said made all of us feel really good and (have) a lot of pride in what we're doing."
Hickman, the No. 2 starter who was Iowa's lone first-team all-Big Ten Conference selection, was a projected MLB Draft second-rounder (worth around $1 million) but slipped to the seventh round (a $200,000 payday from the Chicago White Sox). Now we know why: Hickman recently had Tommy John surgery in his right (throwing) elbow.
Heller acknowledged this week that Hickman struggled through forearm pain in his final starts of the season, including losses in the Big Ten Tournament to Michigan and NCAA regional to Missouri State. Hickman had a knot in his right forearm that Iowa's medical staff thought was a soft-tissue injury because he had no elbow pain.
After the season, an MRI revealed the tear in Hickman's ulnar collateral ligament.
"Hat's off to Blake for toughing it out and continuing to throw and finding a way to give us some innings," Heller said, "but he did fall off (in velocity and performance).
"It was one of the strangest things I've seen. Blake told me after his MRI and the MRI said it was torn, 'Coach, it was crazy. They were pushing on my elbow and trying to make it hurt, and it never hurt on my elbow. I kept telling them, it's not my elbow.' It was pretty wild."
Recruiting class still rising
The Hawkeyes must replace Hickman and several seniors, such as 1-2 hitters Eric Toole and Jake Mangler and NCAA regional MVP Nick Hibbing, but the good news is, their conference rivals are rebuilding, too. And lots of help is on the way.
After Perry's arrival was cemented (the Californian is suiting up for the Northwoods League's Waterloo Bucks), the Hawkeyes' 2015 recruiting class moved up to No. 26 nationally, according to Perfect Game. Iowa's class is ranked No. 1 in the Big Ten.
"A lot of the teams in the league are suffering some pretty good hits, either from graduation or in the draft," Heller said. "It should even things out a little bit."
The real-deal McCoy
That recruiting ranking might jump again if signee Mason McCoy officially becomes a Hawkeye. He was an undrafted, draft-eligible junior-college player from Illinois Central who is now getting MLB free-agent attention as he rips through Northwoods League pitching. He could be signed at any point until Iowa's fall semester starts, if the price is right.
Entering Wednesday, McCoy had 89 hits for the La Crosse (Wis.) Loggers, a team record and approaching the league's 20-year-old mark of 107. He was batting .374 with seven homers and 13 steals in 55 games.
McCoy, who has two years of eligibility left, would be a terrific candidate to replace Toole as the team's leadoff man.
"I talked to him (Sunday), and everything's good so far," Heller said. "But if somebody came in and blew the doors off, who knows? That's a little bit of a worry there."
The 2016 rotation
The leading candidate to replace Hickman in Heller's weekend rotation is hard-throwing junior left-hander Ryan Erickson, who posted a 4-1 record and 2.79 ERA as one of Iowa's top relievers in 2015.
Erickson would be the No. 2 guy, between all-Big Ten right-handers Peyton and Calvin Mathews.
"That's obviously one of the thoughts," Heller said, "and he'd be the perfect guy to do it."
Erickson this summer has been rehabbing a stress-reaction in his left (push) leg that bothered him in the second half of last season.
Credit for an astonishing record
Iowa's magical 2015 season included six walk-off wins. But the biggest reason for breakthrough success was the team ERA of 2.95 — shattering the school record of 3.63 set in 1971.
Heller heaped praise on pitching coach Scott Brickman for the feat, then weighed in on whether similar statistics could occur in 2016.
"You go back and look at most teams' ERA records were set in the '40s, '50s, '60s and early '70s, when they were playing 20 games and using wood bats," Heller said. "You don't see ERA records get set in 2015 very often. To me, that's unbelievable, and I don't think people can grasp how big of a deal that is.
"To expect to set an ERA record (in 2016), no. But do I think we'll be really solid on the mound? It wouldn't surprise me if we were."
Infielders McCoy, Nick Roscetti (hitting .370) and Corbin Woods, utility-man Austin Guzzo and pitcher Jake Reinhardt (0.78 ERA in 34-plus innings) are among Hawkeyes who made their summer-league all-star teams.
Sioux City North's Robert Neustrom was named Iowa's Gatorade Player of the Year after hitting .540 with 19 doubles and 46 RBI this summer. He and Waterloo Columbus' Luke Farley are big-hitting outfielders who could make an immediate impact in the Hawkeye lineup.
"If everything goes well and Mason shows up on campus like I think he will, this team could be maybe even a tick better than last year offensively," Heller said of a group that batted .298 in Big Ten play. "We've got some good hitters coming in, and we've got some (returning) guys that are going to have big years."
Duane Banks Field was crowded during Big Ten weekends, with a high of 2,506 fans against Nebraska on April 26. The 2016 home schedule should pack them in again. (Make a note, new fans: Season tickets will go on sale in January.)
Iowa's four non-plays in the 13-team Big Ten include Nebraska and three teams that didn't make the eight-team league tournament: Northwestern, Purdue and Rutgers. The home opponents include three returning NCAA regional qualifiers in Illinois, Maryland and Michigan, plus Michigan State.
The Hawkeyes' ambitious road slate includes three-game series at NCAA regional hosts Dallas Baptist and Missouri State. The 2016 schedule hasn't been released, but look for a home opener on March 8 or 9.
Title talk continues
The turnaround happened. The trick now is to keep it going.
After he was hired at Iowa in July 2013, Heller figured Year 3 would be his most challenging because of roster turnover and the need to develop new team leaders.
But winning the school's first Big Ten title in 26 years (Iowa finished second to Illinois in May) remains the top goal.
"We fought hard to bring in kids we think can step in and play. And having Tyler come back, with Calvin on the weekend, gives us a great chance to compete for a championship," Heller said. "And that's what we're going to be shooting for. I think we'll put a great team out there. How things will go, you never know, but we're excited at this point."