Resilient Hawkeyes punch ticket to Big Ten tournament

Chad Leistikow

Rick Heller’s boys picked a great time for their first five-game winning streak of 2016. As a result, their baseball season will continue, in next week’s Big Ten Conference tournament.

An 8-0 win in Friday’s first game of a doubleheader at Penn State guaranteed Iowa a spot in the eight-team event that begins Wednesday at TD Ameritrade Stadium in Omaha, Neb. Iowa will be the No. 7 seed if Michigan State beats Maryland on Saturday, the No. 8 seed otherwise.

Even though the Hawkeyes (27-25, 12-12) lost the nightcap, 5-4 in 12 innings, they still went to bed in State College, Pa., having made history as the first Iowa team ever to reach three straight Big Ten Tournaments.

“I’m really proud of this team,” said Heller, now 3-for-3 in reaching the postseason as Iowa’s coach. “They could’ve quit a bunch of times when things didn’t go their way.

“But they just kept plugging along. We vowed to get better every day and hoped to play our best baseball at the end of the season. Not only did we do that, we kind of did it against all odds.”

The Hawkeyes are down to one catcher, didn’t play any of the Big Ten’s three bottom-feeders and regular No. 3 starter Calvin Mathews was too sore to pitch Friday. But they’re still ticking.

“Really, really persevered,” Heller said. “I just think it says a lot about this group of guys and how they wanted to carry on the tradition and the legacy those guys left us the last two years. Getting back to the tournament — from where we were at one time — is a pretty big deal.”

Seven days ago, Iowa was 8-11 in the Big Ten. But back-to-back wins over Michigan State set the table for a possible tournament run.

Needing to win one of two games to clinch a spot in Omaha, the Hawkeyes responded with a 15-hit barrage in Game 1 to clinch their first road series win of the season.

Right-hander Tyler Peyton was magnificent, tossing a complete-game, three-hitter to extend his scoreless streak to 23 innings. He has allowed just eight hits in that span, a heroic surge to get Iowa into the postseason.

Peyton was bothered earlier in the year with forearm soreness, and his numbers suffered. But now he’s reverted to last season’s form — and then some — when he was the No. 1 starter and a third-team all-American. After finishing off the Nittany Lions (28-27, 12-12) with just 98 pitches Friday, he might be able to turn around and start Wednesday’s Big Ten Tournament opener.

“Tyler’s performance today was off the charts,” Heller said. “We needed a big W to get into the tournament, and he just was unhittable.”

Although Iowa squandered a 4-0 lead in the series finale and missed a chance to climb as high as the No. 6 seed, it wasn’t a huge deal. The Big Ten’s balance among its top 10 teams figures to project a free-for-all in Omaha anyway.

The Hawkeyes will learn their opponent after Saturday’s games. They’ll play at either 1 p.m. or 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

“We’re not going to let (the Game 3 loss) ruin a really, really positive weekend where we stepped up and played extremely well,” Heller said. “Hopefully, we learn from what happened in Game 3 and move on.”