Hawkeye baseball cruises in rare February home opener
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The impromptu alteration to Iowa's baseball schedule delivered numerous positives.
In the stands, a solid crowd enjoyed a rare February treat: sunny, 75-degree weather, with a cloudless sky providing the perfect backdrop. The conditions are so rare this time of year that Wednesday’s game against Loras College was believed to be the earliest home opener in program history.
On the field, Iowa saw its hopeful midweek starter deliver quality innings in his first extended outing, followed by a mostly clean outing from an array of bullpen arms. The offense produced as well, capitalizing on an early two-out situation that spilled over into the ensuing frame.
That successful mixture propelled the Hawkeyes to an 8-1 victory at Duane Banks Field, marking the fourth straight season Iowa (2-2) has won its home opener.
“I was following the forecast when we were down in Florida, and I saw that Tuesday and Wednesday were both going to be really nice if they held true,” Hawkeyes coach Rick Heller explained. “So after the game on Saturday down in Tampa, I got on the horn and starting calling around to see who could play. And (Loras College coach) Carl (Tebon) said that he thought he could pull it off.
“Our administration was supportive. They just wanted us to avoid Tuesday with the basketball game last night, which makes a lot of sense. Glad we did. Great night, big crowd — good for our guys to get out here on our home field.”
Right-hander Grant Judkins (1-0) tossed three scoreless frames in his first collegiate start, surrendering just one hit and one walk with four strikeouts.
Depending on the immediate health of weekend staple C.J. Eldred, the midweek slot could become a regular role for Judkins, who also doubles as a first baseman and is ranked as Baseball America’s No. 8 freshman in the Big Ten.
“I’ve always been more comfortable starting,” said Judkins, who was the 2016 Iowa Gatorade player of the year. “It feels good to get the first start under the belt and move on from here.”
Judkins picked up some instant offensive assistance from third baseman Matt Hoeg, who dropped a two-out, bases-loaded triple just inside the right-field foul line to give Iowa a 3-0 first-inning lead. More cushion arrived in the second from Jake Adams and Austin Guzzo, who delivered back-to-back RBI singles after the Hawkeyes juiced the bases once again.
With a 5-0 lead in hand, Iowa coach Rick Heller trotted out a variety of arms following Judkins’ strong start. The combination of Kyle Shimp, Nick Nelsen, Sammy Lizarraga, Shane Ritter and Zach Daniels yielded just six baserunners while striking out 11.
Heading into Iowa's weekend set against Alabama State — a likely NCAA Tournament team — and Morehead State in Hoover, Ala., Wednesday’s action was a welcomed sight all around.
"It was a big deal," Hoeg said. "We haven’t even been outside that much."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.