Peyton's return could elevate Iowa baseball again

Matt Cozzi

The Iowa baseball team made a lot of history in 2015.

Iowa finished 41-18, advancing to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1990. The Hawkeyes won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time since 1972 and racked up the program's second-highest single-season win total.

The Hawkeyes also placed second in the Big Ten, using a resurgent fan base to turn Banks Field into one of the conference's toughest places to play.

Those superlatives can explain why there is some difficulty thinking coach Rick Heller's club could do better in 2016.

But if they do, Tyler Peyton is a good reason why.

Peyton bypassed professional baseball to remain in Iowa City for his senior season. Chosen in the 33rd round of the MLB Draft by the Cincinnati Reds, Peyton is a premier two-way player. The Grimes native is the team's top starting pitcher, going 7-4 with a 3.03 ERA in 95 innings last year. He also bats third in the order, where he hit at a .337 clip with 31 RBIs at first base and as a designated hitter.

"It’s extremely important (Peyton is back)," Heller said at the team's media day Thursday. "First of all, it’s something that none of us thought would happen, so that’s a huge bonus and huge boon for us to get one of the best players in the Big Ten and one of the best players in the country to come back to school. Our Friday night starter, our 3-hole hitter — that completely changed the dynamics of what this year would have been without him."

Peyton actually didn't take long in deciding to put on the black and gold again.

The MLB Draft took place in mid-June with a mid-July signing deadline. Within two days of the draft, however, Peyton chose to decline the Reds and return to Iowa.

"Tyler stuck to his guns. He had his (signing bonus) number," Heller said. "When they didn’t get to his number, he said it’s worth it to come back to school, get his degree, help this team get better, try to get to Omaha, try to do things we didn’t do last year. We’re very, very happy that Tyler made that decision. It was a very mature decision and unselfish."

A third-team All-American selection by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association, Peyton is one of three Hawkeyes on the conference's preseason watch list. He joins two other seniors, pitcher Calvin Mathews and shortstop Nick Roscetti.

Iowa is picked to finish fourth in the league in a poll by the coaches. Michigan is first, with Maryland second and Indiana third. The Hawkeyes open the spring Feb. 19-21 with three games at Dallas Baptist.

"I wanted to be a part of this program for one more year," Peyton said. "I wasn’t sure if I was ready for the next step, and it becomes easier when you know you’re coming back to such a great program with great coaches."

Peyton, who noted he's leaning towards a future as a pitcher and not as a position player, could garner all types of accolades as the season rolls along. He might be the best two-way player in the nation.

Despite turnover from last year to this year — Iowa lost four position players and one starting pitcher — the return of the team's top pitcher and hitter brings optimism as the Hawkeyes now try to sustain success in Heller's third year at the helm.

"We have a good shot at having a better season than last year, to be honest with you," Peyton said. "We have a lot of new guys, a lot of not-as-experienced guys, but we have a lot of talent on this team. We’ll let it play out. You never know what happens during the season, but I think we’ll go a long way with this team."