Schedule change adds urgency to Iowa baseball tourney push

Chad Leistikow

The Iowa baseball team’s push for a conference tournament berth has been condensed to a 24-hour sprint.

A poor Saturday forecast forced the move to a 1 p.m. CT Friday doubleheader to close the Hawkeyes’ regular season at Penn State. Game 1 of the critical series is still scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

Iowa (25-24 overall, 10-11 Big Ten) and Penn State (27-25, 11-10) are among six teams vying for four remaining spots in the league tourney scheduled for May 25-29 in Omaha, Neb. If the Hawkeyes, currently tied for ninth place, win two of three, they’ll almost certainly earn one of the eight spots in the double-elimination event. The Hawkeyes own tiebreakers over three other bubble teams in Michigan State (12-9 Big Ten), Maryland (11-10) and Illinois (10-11).

The winner of the Big Ten Tournament would earn an automatic berth to the 64-team NCAA Tournament. A year ago, the Hawkeyes recorded their first NCAA wins since 1972.

Iowa's Tyler Peyton (38) could be pitching the team's biggest game of the season on Friday.

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The schedule change won’t alter Iowa’s projected rotation, although the margin for error is even thinner. C.J. Eldred (2-8, 3.67 ERA) was Thursday’s scheduled starter, but after throwing a team-high 81 innings, he may require early relief. The good news for Iowa is that right-hander Nick Gallagher was available Thursday after missing last week’s series against Michigan State. Despite just four starts, Gallagher leads the team in wins (6-3, 3.04) and ranks second in innings pitched (53 1/3).

Game 2 features the Hawkeyes’ hottest pitcher in Tyler Peyton. In his last two starts, he’s thrown 14 innings while allowing zero runs and five hits. And in Friday night's Game 3, it’ll likely be Calvin Mathews, who has struggled most of the year but came up with 3 2/3 scoreless innings in his home career finale Sunday vs. the Spartans. Left-hander Ryan Erickson (2-1, 3.45) would likely be Iowa’s go-to, long reliever in Game 3.

Reliever Luke Vandermaten, who was suspended indefinitely following a weekend arrest, did not make the trip. Iowa is also down to one regular catcher in Daniel Aaron Moriel, with Jimmy Frankos (hamstring) injured.

The Hawkeyes are trying to reach back-to-back-to-back Big Ten Tournaments for the first time in school history.