Rick Heller gives updates on the Hawkeyes' baseball team after Saturday's fall scrimmage. Dargan Southard/Press-Citizen
IOWA CITY, Ia. — After an eventful summer that saw Iowa play 13 games — three versus summer league squads, three at the NBC World Series and seven at the World University Games in Taiwan — the Hawkeyes returned to the field Saturday afternoon for their lone fall scrimmage against outside competition.
Iowa picked up a 17-2 win over the Ontario Blue Jays, one of the premier U-18 travel teams in Canada. The Hawkeyes will conclude their fall slate next month with the Black and Gold World Series, which runs Oct. 11-13.
Coming off the program’s first Big Ten Tournament title and second NCAA regional appearance in three years, here are some early takeaways and updates on various storylines as the Hawkeyes look to keep momentum flowing into 2018.
Although six of eight positional starters are back for 2018, one of Iowa’s larger holes to fill is at shortstop, where Mason McCoy was a reliable defensive force and provided stability from the No. 2 hole.
Heller expects a battle there for the remainder of fall, but sophomore Kyle Crowl has seemingly taken a sizable step forward. He started all seven games in Taiwan while hitting .333.
“I would tell you that Kyle is our most improved player from last season to now,” Heller said. “Where he was, he wasn’t in a good spot the second half of the season. When he left here after his freshman year, he went to summer league and really worked hard, got some at-bats and got his confidence back.
“When he came back in July to train for the World Games, I was like, ‘Whoa.’ It was like a different guy.”
Heller still expects newcomer Tanner Wetrich to be in the mix at short, adding that Iowa’s staff took the Mineral Area Community College transfer out of his comfort zone a bit by tinkering with his defensive footwork. Heller said those changes set Wetrich back a bit, but the potential is still certainly there.
“I think Tanner’s going to really push, though,” Heller said. “He’s got power and has a chance to be a really good hitter. We’ve just got to get his defense to a level of consistency.”
Versatility at the corners
Heller knows Jake Adams’ dynamic 2017 production is irreplaceable. That much is obvious.
So to counter, the Iowa baseball coach is looking for interchangeable parts and versatility at first base. That search has spilled over to the other corner infield spot as Heller continues to search for just the right makeup heading into 2018.
Senior Matt Hoeg, who started 55 games at third base last season but played quite a bit of first base at Iowa Western, has split time between those two positions throughout the offseason. He made three starts at first, two at third and one as the designated hitter in Taiwan.
Sophomore Grant Judkins saw some time at first as well, while newcomer Lorenzo Elion started five games at third at the World University Games. Knowing that the Hawkeyes likely won’t run out the same starting lineup each game like they did last year, having a number of versatile options at the corners could prove valuable.
“I think we’re all just kind of searching for the perfect mix of offense and defense with this team not having Jake,” he said. “I think we’re all kind of having withdrawals knowing that he’s not here. But this team is going to be a lot different. We’re going to have to score runs in different ways.
“… Just a lot of questions to be answered with this team, and I don’t think, even after Taiwan, any of us feel comfortable saying we’re just going to pencil (the same) nine names in every time.”
'Couldn’t be prouder of a guy'
Arguably Iowa’s biggest surprise so far has been freshman catcher Brett McCleary, who didn’t even commit to the Hawkeyes until June 22. But the City High product started six of the seven games in Taiwan — four as the designated hitter and two behind the plate — batting .292 (7-for-24) with three doubles.
“Being around a group of guys who are great leaders kind of helps settle you down,” McCleary said. “They really welcomed me into the program, and I think that’s all helped a lot, especially moving through the fall and getting accustomed to things. It’s starting to flow pretty smoothly.”
City High product Brett McCleary on quick turnaround from high school to college. Dargan Southard/Press-Citizen
There wasn’t much luxury of a trial run. Within weeks of McCleary’s high school season ending on July 19, he jumped right into a collegiate setting as the Hawkeyes geared up for Taiwan.
How big McCleary’s role will be in 2018 remains to be seen, but Heller has been thoroughly impressed by his late addition.
“Couldn’t be prouder of a guy,” Heller said. “He came into a tough situation. As soon as they got beat out in the tournament, he jumped in with us and started practicing. I don’t think any of us really thought that Brett would probably even go (to Taiwan) at that point.
“But working with him every day, his work ethic is outstanding.”
The Hawkeyes received their 2017 Big Ten Tournament championship rings during the sixth inning Saturday, accompanied by a 2017 highlight reel that played on the video board.
"They were sweet, man," outfielder Robert Neustrom said. “Got chills right when I saw it.”
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.