IOWA CITY, Ia. – The Iowa baseball team’s fortunes may have turned as quickly as second baseman Mason McCoy changed directions Sunday to make the catch of a lifetime.
The Hawkeyes beat Michigan State 5-1 before an announced crowd of 1,116 in their home finale at Duane Banks Field, keeping their chances of qualifying for the Big Ten Conference Tournament alive for one more weekend.
But if you believe in omens — and baseball players are a particularly superstitious lot — then it was McCoy’s miraculous catch that may end up defining a season.
Leading off the eighth inning, Spartans pinch-hitter Taylor Grace lined the ball at Iowa pitcher Ryan Erickson. As McCoy darted into the outfield to try to make what he thought would be a leaping catch, the ball skimmed off of Erickson’s torso and into the air. McCoy reversed course and raced in to make a diving catch that sent a roar through the crowd.
“I tried planting and getting in there on time. I heard (shortstop) Nick (Roscetti) yelling, ‘In the air, in the air, catch it in the air,’ ” McCoy said. “I laid out for it. I couldn’t believe I made the play. Hopefully it makes SportsCenter. That would be sweet.”
It was a highlight-reel play made more significant because Michigan State scored its lone run later in the inning and loaded the bases before Hawkeye reliever Zach Daniels struck out Dan Chmielewski to end the threat. The win clinched a much-needed series victory for Iowa (24-24, 10-11 Big Ten) and left coach Rick Heller thinking that this version of the Hawkeyes team may still be able to provide a fitting encore for last year’s NCAA Tournament team.
“We finally caught a break or two and we really haven’t this year. If you play 162 games, they usually even out, but in a 50-game schedule sometimes they don’t,” Heller said. “Maybe it was our day. Maybe things will start bouncing our way and we can get hot and roll into the tournament and make some noise.”
Michigan State (33-15, 12-9) handed Iowa its first three runs Sunday, two scoring on a three-base error by left fielder Marty Bechina and the other on a delayed double steal that saw Joel Booker cross home plate while the Spartans were preoccupied trying to snare McCoy in a rundown between first and second base.
McCoy, who plated Iowa’s final runs with a two-run single, said it was good to finally see the spike on the other foot, as it were.
“We’ve had a lot of unlucky things that don’t go our way. There’s been a lot of things that you don’t ever see,” he said. “I think it’s prepared us.”
Iowa will find out if that’s true Thursday through Saturday, when regular season play concludes with a three-game series at Penn State. The Hawkeyes are in a tie for ninth place with Illinois, one game behind Penn State and Maryland. Iowa owns tiebreakers over the Illini and Terrapins and would against the Nittany Lions if it wins two of the games this week, and that’s what it will take to break into the top eight teams that qualify for the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha starting May 25.
For a team that finished 41-18 a year ago and earned the program’s first NCAA Tournament wins since 1972, it’s humbling to be in a must-win position merely to make its own league tournament. But this year’s team has struggled to string together victories. Its longest win streak is three games.
Pitching has been the culprit. The Hawkeyes have an ERA of 3.72, up dramatically from last year’s 2.95.
Starters Tyler Peyton (5.02) and Calvin Mathews (6.29) have battled injuries but may be rounding back into shape at the right time. Peyton has won his past two starts, including a 3-1 victory over Michigan State on Saturday. Mathews, who has dealt with a labrum injury his entire career, took the mound Sunday and retired the first 11 Spartans before allowing a walk and a single and being removed from the game. Still, it was a significant step forward for the senior from Bloomfield.
The Hawkeyes are a ghastly 4-14 in road games, not helped by the fact that they didn’t face the bottom three teams in the Big Ten — Northwestern, Purdue and Rutgers. They’ll hit the road one last time without senior catcher and emotional leader Jimmy Frankos, whose season was ended by a hamstring injury suffered Friday.
Heller’s hopes are undimmed. What happened on a wacky Sunday at Banks Field only confirmed what he already suspected:
“It’s been a weird year. I’m disappointed we haven’t won as many games as we thought we might, but I’m not disappointed in how we’ve played. It was never just bad baseball or getting blown out or bad defense, throwing the ball around,” he said before the Michigan State series.
“I keep telling them if we do the right things, usually baseball turns around in your favor. So far, it hasn’t this year. But maybe this weekend will be the weekend.”
Maybe it was.