Rick Heller breaks down Iowa’s blowout win over Cornell College. Dargan Southard / The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — By the time fans finished trickling in late Tuesday afternoon, only a few sporadic seats remained in the Duane Banks Field bleachers. A pocket of sunshine emerged amid the February cold for a second straight season, and Iowa baseball supporters pounced on the opportunity.
Once a forgotten sport on the wrestling- and football-heavy campus, Rick Heller’s squad continues to gain traction as success piles up. Fresh off the program’s first ever Big Ten Tournament title and second regional appearance in three years, the Hawkeyes didn’t disappoint a packed house in Tuesday's home opener.
Iowa sent 13 to the plate in the opening frame and scored seven times, blitzing Cornell College, 15-1, for its fifth consecutive home-opening win.
"It went about as well as we could've planned," Heller said. "Had a chance to get all the position players in and jumped on them right away with seven to ease the pressure a little bit."
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The in-state showdown carried little drama, but the Hawkeyes (6-1) needed a chance to breathe while still making productive strides. Iowa trotted out seven different arms, including three freshmen, and got extended peeks at its bullpen depth in a game setting.
Davenport Assumption product Trenton Wallace got the longest look, firing three shutout innings in his first career start. The freshman southpaw yielded a hit in every frame but punched out four and didn’t walk a single Ram. It was a strong audition for the Hawkeyes’ midweek starting spot, a role Heller said Iowa built Wallace up for in the preseason.
"It's definitely nice to be able to get out there and do it for the first time, get your feet wet," Wallace said. "But I'm willing to do whatever the coaches need me to do in any situation as a pitcher on the mound.
"Whenever they throw me in, my job is to do the best that I can to put our team in a situation that we can win the game."
Fellow freshman lefty Jack Dreyer showed promise in his Duane Banks Field debut as well, striking out three in two scoreless frames. He consistently flashed a low-90s fastball while mixing in a quality slider that had a couple Rams flailing.
Kole Kampen also had a quality outing in his first appearance back from Tommy John surgery, throwing a scoreless inning.
The offense, meanwhile, needed little time warming up. Three of the game’s first four hitters reached, punctuated by Tyler Cropley’s two-run double that pushed his team-leading RBI count to nine. The senior catcher is now hitting .308 through seven games.
Tyler Crowley talks about Iowa’s win over Cornell College. Dargan Southard / The Register
Robert Neustrom drew the bulk of the preseason publicity — and deservedly so — but Iowa must find consistent protection behind the heralded right-fielder to maximize his value, just as Neustrom did last year in boosting Jake Adams.
Cropley has shown he can fill that protective role so far, surging out to a much cleaner start than last season’s opening sputter.
"It's definitely important from a team aspect, just having somebody who can hit behind (Robert) and do it consistently," Cropley said. "That's what they're looking for, and I think that's what I can do this year."
Iowa, though, was far from finished in the first. A two-out Cornell throwing error opened the Hawkeye floodgates, allowing seven straight hitters to reach before the frame ended. Iowa tacked on eight more runs throughout, buoyed by a six-run seventh. Seven of the Hawkeyes’ nine starters picked up hits.
After a productive home debut, Iowa will head back out this weekend for a three-game set at UAB. The Hawkeyes have delivered solid showings in their opening two weekends and will look to continue thriving away from home.
"The great thing about it is we've had a lot of games so far where we didn't really play that well," Heller said, "and so to be able to find ways to win and to be able to work on things without having to suffer has been great. I just hope we can build this weekend, clean up our defense.
"I really thought the pitching has come around. Hopefully, that can continue to improve, and we can get the offense going."
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.