Heller's Hawkeyes looking for home lift vs. Illinois

Chad Leistikow
Iowa outfielder Joel Booker (23) is greeted after a home run in the Big Ten-opening series against Maryland at Duane Banks Field. The Hawkeyes are 23-4 at home in the last two seasons.

To stay hot at home, the Iowa baseball team is going to have to overcome the cold.

The Hawkeyes could use every advantage they can get in this weekend’s three-game series against defending Big Ten Conference champion Illinois, but the expected blustery conditions won’t help.

“The weather is the biggest neutralizer of all,” Iowa coach Rick Heller said. “When you’re looking at cold and windy, it turns more into survival than playing.”

Both teams bring records of 12-14 overall, 3-3 in the Big Ten to Duane Banks Field — where the Hawkeyes are 23-4 since last season, including five walk-off victories, without a series loss. Iowa opened Big Ten play two weeks ago at home by taking two of three from perennially-tough Maryland.

The cold weather and parking challenges with the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials going on next door will likely stifle the crowd size, starting with Friday’s 4:05 p.m. series opener which pits Iowa’s C.J. Eldred (2-3, 2.51 ERA) vs. Illinois’ Cody Sedlock (4-1, 3.50). Sedlock can send radar guns whirring, with reported velocity of 95-97 mph. The junior right-hander leads the Big Ten with 52 strikeouts.

“He’s a tough one on Friday. But other than that we’re a pretty even matchup across the board,” Heller said. “Neither one of us are hitting the cover off the ball.”

It was a season ago that Iowa and Illinois were battling for the Big Ten title — except against each other. They didn't face off, as the Illini finished first in the conference, and Iowa was second.

It’s a slightly different story now with both teams rebuilding and tied for seventh after heavy graduation and MLB draft losses. The winner of this weekend’s series gets a lift in qualifying for the eight-team Big Ten tournament May 25-29 in Omaha, Neb.

To shake things up, Heller is altering his weekend rotation. Iowa City West product Nick Gallagher (3-2, 2.89) on Sunday will get his first career Big Ten start, with Calvin Mathews — who didn’t get past the third inning in either of his starts against Maryland or Minnesota while allowing eight earned runs — possibly moving to a mid-week role.

But the key area to improve is hitting. Iowa has a .228 average in Big Ten play, but a strong bullpen has helped keep them at .500.

“We’ve got to get some guys going in the lineup,” Heller said. “If we do, things will start clicking. Because the pitching, for the most part, has been good enough to win.”

Iowa baseball this weekend

Matchup: Illinois (12-14, 3-3 Big Ten) at Iowa (12-14, 3-3)

Game times, TV: Friday, 4:05 p.m. (BTN Plus); Saturday, 2:05 p.m. (Hawkeyes All-Access); Sunday, 1:05 p.m. (BTN Plus)

Radio: KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City

Series notes: Iowa leads the Big Ten with a .978 fielding percentage. … The Hawkeyes are 10-1 when they score at least six runs. … Friday is baseball bingo day; After Saturday’s game, kids can run the bases on Duane Banks Field; the first 250 fans Sunday will receive a #Hellerball T-shirt. … There will be a fee to park in university lots with the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Trials happening at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.