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Iowa baseball coach Rick Heller breaks down the Hawkeyes' Big Ten schedule outlook. Dargan Southard/Press-Citizen

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Following a stellar 2017 season that included a riveting postseason run, the Hawkeyes baseball program had tons of buzz built up heading into this year.

Nineteen games into the current campaign, Iowa (12-7) has shown flashes of continued success and moments of futility during its nonconference slate. Aside from seven more midweek games and a series versus Oklahoma State, it’s Big Ten Conference play from here on out. Rick Heller’s squad opens the conference season this weekend against No. 11 Indiana.

Iowa is one game better entering the Big Ten slate than it was last year, but the Hawkeyes’ conference schedule is much tougher in 2018. Of the six other Big Ten schools currently above .500, Iowa faces five of them.

“There have been some bumps,” junior outfielder Robert Neustrom said, “but it’s a long season. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

A quality showing in Big Ten play could lead to an NCAA Tournament-worthy resume, but Iowa must be sharp most weekends over the next two months. A look at what we’ve learned from the Hawkeyes so far.

Weekend rotation has kept Iowa in games

Arguably the biggest preseason unknown has yielded positive results so far. Through five weekends, Iowa’s starting pitching trio of Nick Allgeyer, Brady Schanuel and Cole McDonald has been a reliable bunch that’s rounding into form.

Allgeyer (2-1, 1.76 ERA) has been the Friday night horse Heller expected him to be, having yielded just six earned runs in 30 2/3 innings. That effort shakes out to a 1.76 ERA, currently tops in the conference.

At his best, Allgeyer has been downright filthy. Even at his worst, the 6-foot-3 southpaw has kept Iowa in the game. The Hawkeyes are 4-1 in Allgeyer starts and will need their ace to stay in tip-top shape moving forward.

MORE: After Tommy John trek, Iowa's Nick Allgeyer ready to be a weekend anchor in 2018

“As good as Nick Allgeyer has pitched, and I think he’s pitched really well, I just think his command can be even better,” Heller said. “And his location, as the weather warms up and we get into April — he’s got a chance to be even better than he is.”

Schanuel (3-2, 3.27) began the year a bit dinged up after a preseason rotator cuff issue, but Iowa’s prized junior college addition has bounced back well, particularly his last three starts. After getting rocked versus Ball State on Feb. 24, Schanuel has surrendered just seven hits and two runs over his last 15 innings.

The Iowa staff would like to see Schanuel’s pitch count drop a bit — he’s needed 90-plus pitches to get through five innings in each of his last two outings — but the Parkland College transfer has moved into the Saturday role nicely.

“He has those innings where he gets up around (30 pitches) — and he doesn’t give up a run — but next thing you know, he’s at 100 (pitches) in the fifth inning,” Heller said.  “We’d like to see that in the seventh inning. But he’s a much better pitcher than when he started out, and as the season goes along, I think you’ll see him become more efficient as well."

McDonald (1-1, 3.70), meanwhile, has had the bumpiest road of the three, but the junior right-hander has started to build confidence following a rough 2018 debut. Oakland lit up McDonald on Feb. 17, but he’s churned out three decent starts since.     

Having a reliable arm in that Sunday slot is imperative if Iowa wants to make some noise during the Big Ten slate, and it’s McDonald’s job until his performance dictates otherwise. He’s mostly held up his end so far.

“When Cole’s down in the zone and locating up in the zone when he wants to, he can be really efficient and go deep into games,” Heller said. “He’s just had some games where he’s had to labor and been missing mid-thigh to the belt. And when he does that, he gives up some hits and some runs and throws a lot more pitches than he needs to.

“So I really think as well as they’ve all done, there are better days ahead, possibly.”

Bullpen must regain confidence

Maybe the most surprising development five weeks in has been the Hawkeyes’ lack of bullpen consistency. Iowa has used 12 different relievers over the first 19 games. Some arms have looked solid — others not so much — resulting in a 5.33 bullpen ERA.

The recent back-end struggles are a large factor in why Iowa has dropped six of 10 following an 8-1 start. The bullpen sputtered mightily in the Hawkeyes’ series loss to UNLV and wasn’t particularly impressive in either midweek loss.  

“It’s mainly just getting their confidence back,” Heller said, “because they have the stuff to be successful. There’s no doubt about that. It’s just they’ve been falling behind in counts and walking guys, and it usually stems from lack of command with their secondary stuff.”

Among relievers who were expected to throw pivotal innings, Kyle Shimp (9.39 ERA), Shane Ritter (6.23 ERA) and Nick Nelsen (5.40 ERA) have been the most disappointing. The freshmen arms have been hit-and-miss. Zach Daniels has been his usual self (2.03 ERA, 16 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings). The Hawkeyes also may have found a potential hidden weapon in Grant Leonard, who has a team-high 11 appearances after making only two all of last season.       

There’s still plenty of time for the bullpen to be what Iowa hoped it’d be, but that unit must sharpen up in conference play.    

“They just have to keep getting better,” Heller said, “and that’s what we’ll tell them.”

Help up top

He’s only been back for a week, but the return of Chris Whelan has already boosted Iowa’s lineup. The redshirt junior, who missed the first 14 games after undergoing Tommy John surgery in October, is hitting .450 (9-for-20) with a .522 on-base percentage since returning last weekend against Evansville.

“My strength came back a lot faster than I thought it would,” Whelan said Wednesday. “But that came with me putting in the work when I was finally cleared to hit in controlled settings without being in a game. I’ve been doing well, and I’m just trying to keep that up and help the team win.”

Whelan is relegated to DH duties for the time being, but his name atop the batting order each game should permeate the rest of the lineup.

The early-season showings from Tyler Cropley, Matt Hoeg and Kyle Crowl have allowed Heller to slide Neustrom up to the No. 2 spot which should provide more RBI opportunities with Whelan back active.

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Chris Whelan on his return, Iowa’s outlook heading into Big Ten Conference play. Dargan Southard/Press-Citizen

Resume watch

As magical as Iowa’s Big Ten Tournament title run last year was, the Hawkeyes can’t bank on that every spring. Heller has repeatedly stressed that Iowa’s next step as a program is consistently generating resumes worthy of at-large bids.

The Hawkeyes have let opportunities slip away in that regard. As of Thursday, Iowa’s RPI sits at 84, sixth-highest in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes have just one top-100 RPI win — Virginia Tech at No. 99 — and have suffered four top-100 losses.

Chances for resume builders existed with the Missouri State showdown (would’ve been a top-100 win) and the UNLV series (the Rebels’ RPI is 13 and fourth best among non-Power Five schools). But Iowa went 0-for-4.

That’s where the Hawkeyes’ amplified Big Ten schedule could work in its favor. Iowa’s first five conference series are against top-100 RPI schools: Indiana (53), Illinois (34), Ohio State (28), Nebraska (82) and Minnesota (87). Also throw in the early-May series against Oklahoma State (98).

The at-large margin for error is slimmer in the Big Ten — this isn’t the SEC, where you’re facing a potential regional host or national seed every weekend — but there still appears to be an at-large path if the Hawkeyes can rack up series wins.

It’s on Iowa to take care of business.  

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 msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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