Iowa pitching staff in flux as Hawkeyes open conference play

Dargan Southard

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Each season, Rick Heller knows they’re coming. The long grind of any baseball calendar delivers blows to a team’s overall health. The timing of some are worse than others. The plan moving forward, though, doesn’t alter.

Iowa's Grant Judkins delivers a pitch during the Hawkeyes' game against Loras College at Duane Banks Field on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.

“It’s ingrained into our guys’ heads,” the Iowa baseball coach said, “that somebody else just has to step up and pick it up.”

Injury adversity didn’t wait around long this season for the Hawkeyes. A partial UCL tear has ended C.J. Eldred’s season after just one start, while Friday anchor Nick Gallagher has battled through arm inflammation in recent weeks. As the Hawkeyes (11-8) head into Friday’s Big Ten opener against Purdue (11-8), those hits — coupled with an inconsistent backend of the bullpen — has turned Iowa’s seemingly strong group of arms into a complex pitching puzzle.

“It makes it tougher for sure,” Heller said. “What has to happen is you have to redefine roles, so you’re putting guys out there in situations that they weren’t really expecting to (be in) when the season started or roles that they’ve maybe not had before.”

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Some clarity, at least in the weekend rotation, could arrive soon with Gallagher (2-1, 3.67 ERA), who is expected to go Friday after missing his last start at Kansas State.

The Iowa right-hander first felt some arm discomfort following his March 3 start against Hawaii and struggled in his next outing versus Villanova on March 10. An MRI five days later didn’t reveal any damage or tears, but did show some elbow and forearm inflammation. Rest and rehab was the immediate prescription, and after a weekend off, Gallagher reported drastic improvement in his early-week bullpens.

“I’m feeling a lot better,” Gallagher said this week. “Feeling a lot better from where I was last week.”

Reviving its Friday night ace will dictate how the rest of Iowa’s rotation unfolds moving forward. The Hawkeyes did go through four series without Eldred before his season-ending surgery, which provided starting opportunities for sophomore Cole McDonald (four weekend starts), Ole Miss transfer Drake Robison (four weekend starts), senior Ryan Erickson (one weekend start) and freshman Grant Judkins (one weekend start).

In the immediate term, Erickson (0-1, 4.26) — who began the year in the bullpen but pitched well in a spot start at Kansas State — will go Saturday, followed by McDonald (2-2, 4.84) on Sunday. McDonald has been a rotation staple since Eldred’s initial departure, while inserting Erickson allows Robison to shift back to the bullpen and provide depth for a relief corps that has delivered mixed results in the season’s early going.

“We’ve got to clean some things up at the backend of our bullpen,” Heller said. “That’s something we’ve avoided the three years we’ve been here. We’ve really been solid when we have leads in the eighth inning and not giving up games, and we’ve already given up a couple with leads in the eighth inning, ninth inning.

“Those are tough ones.”

Even after six scoreless innings in Wednesday’s 12-1 win over Bradley, Iowa’s bullpen stills owns a 4.96 ERA over 78 innings, having blown four leads in the seventh or later this season.

Two of those arrived last weekend against the Wildcats. In one, the Hawkeyes salvaged with a late rally. The other ended as a demoralizing extra-inning loss.

Much of the bullpen work has fallen to Josh Martsching, Zach Daniels, Nick Nelsen and Shane Ritter, who’ve combined for 31 of Iowa’s 56 relief appearances. That quartet has been on both ends of the pitching spectrum; only Martsching’s ERA currently resides in the threes.

“I think everyone knows we have the right pieces — we just haven’t fully put it together yet,” Martsching said. “I think we’re getting there.”

After Heller labeled the Hawkeyes’ staff as “one of the strong points” in the preseason, this much pitching limbo certainly wasn’t anticipated leading into conference play. But injuries happen, as do performance struggles.

And the Hawkeyes only know one way to attack.

“As tough as it is,” Gallagher said, “people have just got to step up and give us a chance to win.

“And I feel confident with our guys."

Dargan Southard covers preps, recruiting, Iowa and UNI athletics for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

Iowa (11-8, 0-0 Big Ten) vs. Purdue (11-8, 0-0)

Friday: Nick Gallagher (2-1, 3.67) vs. Tanner Andrews (4-1, 4.22 ERA), 2:05 p.m.

Saturday: Ryan Erickson (0-1, 4.26 ERA) vs. Gareth Stroh (1-2, 8.18), 2:05 p.m.

Sunday: Cole McDonald (2-2, 4.84) vs. Mike Kornacker (0-0, 5.54 ERA), 1:05 p.m.