A year ago, Iowa City got swept up in Hellerball. The excitement of a long-suffering Iowa baseball program roaring into the national rankings (and eventually to its first NCAA Tournament in 25 years) had fans pouring into Duane Banks Field by the thousands.
This year? Hard-hit grounders have resulted in inning-ending double plays instead of clutch singles. Nagging arm injuries have contributed to a pitching staff ERA that's more than a run higher in Big Ten Conference play than it was in 2015. Instead of battling for the league lead, Rick Heller’s third Iowa team is battling .500.
Indicative of a bad-fate spring, the Hawkeyes received an overdose from Mother Nature. You could count on one hand (no, really) the number of Iowa’s 23 home games that didn’t involve blustery, cold or wet conditions (often all at once). Attendance suffered.
But even though the honeymoon phase gave way to a challenging relationship, this week offers a chance to rekindle a Hawkeye baseball spark.
Over a Thursday-through-Saturday, regular-season-ending series in State College, Pa., Iowa can play its way into the eight-team Big Ten Tournament — and make program history along the way.
“It is a big deal. That’s something we really want badly,” said Heller, whose first team in 2014 got the eighth and final seed, then earned the No. 2 seed a year ago. “We feel like if we get in the tournament, we’re every bit as capable of winning it as any team of the league.”
The Big Ten Tournament began in 1981 with a four-team format, then expanded to six teams in 2000 and eight in 2014. A series win at Penn State is essentially what separates Iowa from a program-first third straight appearance.
Without getting into the weeds of complicated tiebreakers here, the bottom line is pretty simple: Winning two of three games almost certainly does the trick. One of three almost certainly doesn’t.
For Iowa’s program, reaching the conference tournament would make 2016 a success in what was expected to be a rebuilding year.
Heller brought in an excellent recruiting class in the fall, and qualifying for the May 25-29 shindig at TD Ameritrade Stadium in Omaha (yes, the same venue as the College World Series) would constitute forward momentum.
For 13 seniors, including Tyler Peyton, there are legacy issues, too. When Peyton chose to return to Iowa after getting picked in June’s MLB Draft, he didn't envision ending his career without a winning record or a Big Ten Tournament berth.
“They’re playing for a lot,” Heller said. “Even though we don’t talk about that in terms of that, they know it.”
And unlike last year, when Iowa was one of a record five Big Ten teams to receive an at-large bid to the NCAAs, the only way the Hawkeyes qualify for this year's regional dance is by winning the conference tournament.
It's baseball's version of March Madness in May. And for 25-24 Iowa, it's already started.
After falling to 8-11 in Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes shifted to must-win mode and responded with back-to-back home victories against Michigan State to reach 10-11 and give themselves a shot.
They’ve forced a tie for ninth place for now and can nudge ahead of at least two teams, with Michigan (12-8), Michigan State (12-9), Maryland (11-10) and Penn State (11-10) just ahead.
Sustained success has been fleeting. Iowa's longest win streak of the season is three games. With a win in Thursday's opener, it would be four, and perhaps the start of recapturing the magic that made 2015 special.
“There’s not a huge difference between the first-place team and the 10th- or 11th-place team in the league this year,” Heller said. “All of those teams are pretty balanced.
“It’s just so crazy. You go into this final weekend, with how balanced the league is — you could go from fifth place to 10th place in one weekend. It shows you how close we’ve been. Had the breaks gone our way, it could’ve been a different year. I’m really proud of how these guys have fought. We’ve played good baseball, and hopefully that’ll continue down the stretch.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
BIG TEN FINISHING STRETCH
Standings (Top 8 make conference tournament) — 1. Minnesota (33-16, 15-5); 2. Indiana (31-19, 15-6); T-3. Ohio State (36-16-1, 13-8); T-3. Nebraska (34-18, 13-8); 5. Michigan (34-17, 12-8); 6. Michigan State (33-16, 12-9); T-7. Maryland (26-24, 11-10); T-7. Penn State (27-25, 11-10); T-9. Illinois (26-22, 10-11); T-9. Iowa (25-24, 10-11); 11. Rutgers (26-26, 8-13); 12. Northwestern (13-38, 5-16); 13. Purdue (7-43, 2-22).
This weekend’s series – Indiana at Nebraska (Thurs.-Sat.); Iowa at Penn State (Thurs.-Sat.); Maryland at Michigan State (Thurs.-Sat.); Northwestern at Rutgers (Thurs.-Sat.); Ohio State at Minnesota (Thurs.-Sat.); Michigan at Illinois (Fri.-Sun.).
Iowa-Penn State series (times CDT) – 5:30 p.m. Thursday, 5:30 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. Saturday. There is no TV; radio broadcasts available on KXIC-AM (800) in Iowa City and via Hawkeye All-Access (subscription).