Despite youth, 'underrated' Hawkeyes feel chemistry is there
IOWA CITY, Ia. — As an in-state product and Hawkeye hurler, C.J. Eldred has heard the bulk of it. The weather isn’t great; the quality of play isn’t great — Iowa’s national baseball perception tends to carry a familiar tune.
“Over and over — that can tick some of us off sometimes,” he said. “‘No, you know what, we can hang with you guys.’
“We have a little saying (on the team). We always ask each other, ‘Is the other team corn-fed?’
The response: “Absolutely not.”
With 18 newcomers littered throughout Iowa’s roster and at least five fresh starters set to enter the Hawkeyes’ regular lineup, this season’s “corn-fed” bunch has seen major alterations from the 2016 squad that closed the year with a riveting surge to the Big Ten Tournament title game.
Gone are the services of MLB draftees Joel Booker (center field), Nick Roscetti (shortstop) and Tyler Peyton (first base/pitcher), and although Iowa boasts a deeper pitching staff than in previous seasons, the Hawkeyes’ youth has generated modest outside predictions heading into Friday’s season opener at South Florida.
But Iowa doesn’t mind.
“I think we’re underrated right now with how many new guys we have,” Eldred said. "This team has got a lot of potential … I think we’ve got a lot of guys who know what they’re doing."
Iowa’s muscle starts in the weekend rotation — one of the few areas that does boast some veteran presence. Iowa City West product Nick Gallagher and Eldred form a solid starting duo after strong 2016 campaigns, giving coach Rick Heller some consistency from his Friday and Saturday starters.
Eldred spent last season in the weekend rotation, producing a 3.43 ERA with a team-high 63 strikeouts. Gallagher bumps up from primarily a long-relief role, where he went 8-3 with a 2.57 ERA.
“Nick’s got great stuff,” Heller said. “He’s got as good of stuff as anybody in the Big Ten. Plus, plus breaking pitch. His velocity has made a nice jump to where he’s in the low 90s and can even push a little higher than that at times, and he’s got a plus changeup. Calm demeanor. Good pitcher’s makeup.”
Sophomore Shane Ritter will get the first crack at Iowa’s Sunday spot this weekend, but Heller said a number of guys could end up seeing action there before conference play commences. Additional candidates include senior Drake Robison and freshman Grant Judkins, who will still be looked upon to supply quality innings out of the bullpen or in a midweek starting role.
The real question marks lie in the starting lineup.
Junior college additions Tyler Cropley (catcher) and Jake Adams (first base) are expected to be immediate impact players, with the former set to lead off and the latter likely sliding into the cleanup hole. Robert Neustrom is set to lead an outfield crew that will likely feature a freshman in center field — either Justin Jenkins or Ben Norman — as well as Parkland College transfer Chris Whelan in left.
Senior standout Mason McCoy slides over from third to shortstop, leaving a battle at the hot corner that will likely shake out over the season’s first few weeks. Freshman Kyle Crowl and junior college addition Matt Hoeg are the leading candidates there.
Still, Heller has seen his current crew grow tremendously in recent months.
“With (so many) new guys, I was a little concerned about this season,” Heller said. “Our culture is really strong and really good. A lot of new faces out there, and the captains on this team have done an amazing job.
“Guys like Corbin Woods, Mason McCoy, Josh Marching and C.J. Eldred, who really did a nice job ... back in August of setting the tone with this team and not letting the culture go backwards. I would tell you the chemistry on this team is as good as any of the teams we’ve had here in my time.”
A November trip to the Dominican Republic helped aid the development and growth, while also providing solid competition and preseason preparation.
“That trip obviously helped a lot," Heller said. “We scheduled that a couple years out and started raising money a couple years out thinking it would be a great situation with a team that was going to be young to jump-start them and get their feet wet before they had to go to Florida and play for real.
“That remains to be seen, but I would tell you now that I think it really helped.”
Inside the Big Ten, Maryland appears to be the prohibitive favorite, but multiple publications have pegged Nebraska as a potential postseason sleeper. Michigan, Indiana and others have formidable squads as well, giving the conference a more solidified bunch than in previous years.
The Hawkeyes, though, expect to be right there.
“I think we can do something special this year,” Eldred said.
Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.
Iowa vs. South Florida
Friday: Nick Gallagher vs. Phoenix Sanders, 5:30 p.m.
Saturday: C.J. Eldred vs. Shane McClanahan, 5:30 p.m.
Sunday: Shane Ritter vs. Peter Strzelecki, 11 a.m.