After slow start, Hawkeye baseball regaining '15 mojo

Chad Leistikow
Iowa outfielder Robert Neustrom, right, celebrates his second-inning, two-run homer in a 12-3 win over Northern Illinois.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — The story of the 2016 Iowa baseball team through 22 games can be embodied in Robert Neustrom. After a slow start, things are really starting to click.

In Tuesday’s 12-3 win over Northern Illinois at Duane Banks Field, Neustrom hit his first collegiate home run and drove in four runs.

Early in the season, that wouldn’t have happened.

“I wasn’t hitting the ball real hard all the time. Wasn’t exactly feeling the most comfortable,” Neustrom said. “As time went on, I didn’t let it get to my head and realized every day’s a new day.”

Now the state’s reigning Gatorade High School Player of the Year is leading all Hawkeye regulars with a .370 batting average. He was the Big Ten Conference’s Freshman of the Week after hitting .667 (6-for-9) in a league-opening series win over Maryland.

“Now he’s starting to slow down,” Iowa coach Rick Heller said, “and you’re seeing the swing he takes in practice in the games.

“There’s a lot more to come. It’s the tip of the iceberg, whether it happens next week, next year, whenever.”

Tuesday’s win was the Hawkeyes’ fourth in their last five games, and the run has begun to spark memories of the magical 2015 season that saw them go 41-18, finish second in the Big Ten and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 25 years.

A come-from-behind, 7-6 win over Bradley a week ago helped revive Iowa after a 6-11 start. Over the weekend, the Hawkeyes won two of three in Iowa City against the Terrapins — a Super Regional team each of the past two years.

And on Tuesday, the Hawkeyes (going against the 6-18 Huskies) pounded four home runs in a game for the first time since 2010.

“We’re getting that fight back, that competitiveness we had last year,” said shortstop Nick Roscetti, who hit a solo shot and is batting .363. “It’s starting to come back.”

Iowa has a 10-12 record, so the road ahead to reach a second straight NCAA Tournament is congested. That bed was made after an 0-4 start and a tough nonconference schedule that included three-game series sweeps at the hands of Dallas Baptist and Missouri State.

“This is my third year here, and this was the first time we’d played a schedule like that at the beginning of the season," said Tyler Peyton, last year's Friday-night ace who is nearly fully recovered from a sore arm and is now the Saturday starter. "It’s really helpful, to be honest. We played a lot of good teams with good arms.”

Peyton hit a grand slam Tuesday, the first he could remember hitting since he was 10. Daniel Aaron Moriel had Iowa's fourth homer, which was launched into the giant video board in left field. That one would've been gone even if the wind hadn't been howling out Tuesday.

The Hawkeyes need more of that offense to keep the magic going. It seems to be coming. But the margin for error after the early-season woes is thin.

Under Heller, who revived this program after taking the job three summers ago, Iowa seems to hang tough in games. This Iowa group, which has five new offensive regulars, leads the Big Ten in fielding percentage.

“They want to go farther than they did last year," Heller said. "We set high goals every year, that’s where we want to be. Based on how the early season went, I think we’d have to win a lot of games. All of our midweek games, basically, and really get on a roll in conference for an at-large.”

The first NCAA RPI will come out next Tuesday. That'll present an early idea where Iowa stands as it charts a possible course to the postseason. Certainly a finish in the Big Ten's top three or four would help. Winning this weekend's three-game series at improved Minnesota would be an excellent next step.

“We’re going to plug along and see how close we can get to competing for a championship again," Heller said. "That’s what this team set out to do.”