HOUSTON — Once the Schroeder Park gates reopened for Friday’s doubleheader nightcap, a sea of Cougar red soon poured in and dominated the noise. The Houston fans were loud and rowdy as their top-seeded home squad looked to march to a regional-opening win.
But they were silent by the last out. The pockets of black and gold made the final buzz.
Backed by another strong offensive showing and enough grit from their arms, the No. 4 seed Hawkeyes started their NCAA baseball tournament run with authority, stunning the Houston Regional’s top dog, 6-3, under the lights. With the victory, Iowa remains in the winner’s bracket and will face No. 3 seed Texas A&M on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Aggies upended second-seeded Baylor, 8-5, in Friday’s opening game.
“We know what we want to do when we go to the plate — what we’re looking for, what we can cut off and stuff like that,” said center fielder Ben Norman, who had three of the Hawkeyes’ 13 hits and was on base four times. “So when we stick to our plan, I think everyone does that really well.”
It's all about region in baseball.
Iowa countered every Cougar punch all night. When Houston erased the Hawkeyes’ early 2-0 advantage, Rick Heller’s squad grabbed the lead right back for good with a two-run fifth, which saw Robert Neustrom and Grant Judkins deliver RBI singles. Iowa then tacked on more cushion in the eighth on run-scoring knocks from Mitchell Boe and Chris Whelan.
But the win didn’t arrive without a twist.
With Iowa clinging to a 4-3 advantage in the sixth, Houston’s Lael Lockhart ripped an apparent game-tying RBI double into the left-center field gap. But after first baseman Jake Adams motioned for an appeal and reliever Kyle Shimp tossed to first, umpire Fred Cannon ruled that Lockhart missed the bag and called him out.
That ended the frame and kept the tying run off the board. Iowa surged ahead two innings later.
The call made a tied 4-4 ballgame into a 4-3 Iowa lead that the Hawkeyes would not relinquish
Heller said the recognition was all Adams, adding that his first basemen are taught to make sure the runner touches the bag before worrying about cutoff responsibilities.
“Savvy play by Jake,” Heller said. “We play with a three-man crew in the Big Ten, so sometimes, those plays get missed when the runners miss the bag. But with a four-man crew, that’s the (first-base) umpire’s only job is to watch and see.
“So he saw the same thing Jake did.”
The offensive outburst arrived from the jump, as the Hawkeyes didn’t waver against another big-name arm. Just as it did to open the conference tournament versus Big Ten pitcher of the year Brian Shaffer, Iowa’s metal came out thumping against Houston southpaw Trey Cumbie, who had been nearly untouchable in recent outings.
The American Athletic Conference pitcher of the year had surrendered just two earned runs over his previous 34 innings coming in — a stretch that spanned four starts — but the Hawkeyes whacked him around early and often. Iowa tagged Cumbie for a season-high 10 hits over 5 1/3 innings, his shortest outing since April 22 versus Tulane.
Iowa baseball coach talks about his team's effort in a win over top-seeded Houston.
Iowa struck first with single runs in the second and fourth as the bottom of the lineup did the initial damage, with Norman and Boe each delivering RBI knocks. The Hawkeyes’ eight and nine hitters were on base a combined six times with five hits and three RBIs.
“One of the big concerns with Cumbie was we weren’t going to chase his changeup,” Heller said, “and we spit on the changeup down most of the night. Forced him to have to come into the zone, which we felt like was the key to the game for us. That way, we’d get some pitches to hit.
“And we did it up and down the lineup.”
That provided enough support for southpaw Ryan Erickson, who didn’t have his best stuff — but grinded through five innings. He yielded nine baserunners — four hits, four walks and hit batsman — but surrendered three runs (two earned) and kept the Hawkeyes in the game.
Bridging the gap was Shimp and then Josh Martsching, who worked out of a two-on, one-out jam in the seventh to preserve Iowa’s one-run lead. He worked the final 2 2/3 with just two hits allowed.
Martsching has been nails in the postseason, having thrown 10 1/3 scoreless frames with just four hits surrendered.
Now, the Hawkeyes march on. After opting to give Nick Gallagher an extra day’s rest following back-to-back rough outings, Iowa will have its ace throwing with a chance to take control of the Houston Regional.
"I don’t think it really mattered what seed we were," Martsching said. “To get out of the regional, you’re going to have to play everyone anyway. So taking that approach, it’s good to get the No. 1 seed first. Being able to win, is a big step forward confidence-wise.”
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.