STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — One more win, and the Hawkeyes are in.
The Iowa baseball team took a significant first step toward qualifying for its conference tournament, pulling out a small-ball victory Thursday in Happy Valley.
The Hawkeyes scored three unearned runs in the second inning and hung on for a 3-2 win against Penn State in the opener of a three-game series that likely will determine who gets a berth in the Big Ten Conference’s eight-team tournament that begins Wednesday in Omaha, Neb.
Iowa (26-24, 11-11 Big Ten) got four solid innings from starter C.J. Eldred, another 3⅔ from winning reliever Nick Gallagher (7-3) and the final four outs from freshman closer Zach Daniels, who picked up his team-high fifth save. They scattered eight hits, but no walks.
"Pitching was the story," third-year coach Rick Heller said. "We got a tremendous start from C.J., and Gallagher came in after missing last week with a groin injury. He tweaked it and had to go from the stretch the rest of the way, but found a way to gut it out. Zach was awesome late to close it down."
Pitching, defense and scratching across clutch runs — that’s how Iowa raced into the NCAA Tournament a year ago, and that’s what got them the victory Thursday.
But a Friday doubleheader is the next and most crucial step for Iowa to extend its season. The 1 p.m. CT twin-bill was announced Thursday due to a shaky forecast for Saturday’s originally-scheduled finale.
Iowa and Penn State (27-26, 11-11) will start the day tied for eighth in the Big Ten, one game behind Maryland and Michigan State (both 12-10 after Maryland beat the reeling Spartans on Thursday) and one ahead of Illinois (10-12), which lost 1-0 to Michigan on Thursday. If Iowa wins at least one game Friday, it’ll own the head-to-head tiebreaker over all four teams vying for available top-eight spots.
Penn State owns the worst fielding percentage in the Big Ten, and Iowa’s ranks second. That difference was key in the Hawkeyes’ three-run second inning, which got going when Mason McCoy reached on a one-out error.
After Robert Neustrom’s infield single, back-to-back walks to John Barrett and Eric Schenck-Joblinske brought home Iowa’s first run. Daniels hit an RBI fielder’s choice, and Tyler Peyton followed with a two-out RBI single for a 3-0 lead. Those three small-ball runs held up for Heller’s bunch, which won a season-high fourth game in a row as it tries to become the Hawkeye team to qualify for three straight Big Ten tournaments.
In Friday's first game, Iowa will send its hottest pitcher to the mound. Peyton hasn't allowed a run in his last two starts, spanning 14 innings. Calvin Mathews is scheduled to start the finale, with durable lefty Ryan Erickson waiting in relief.
"The bullpen is set up well for us, but Penn State can swing the bat," Heller said. "They're playing hard, and they want to go to Omaha just as bad as we do."