Iowa catcher Tyler Cropley breaks down his walk-off grand slam. Dargan Southard/Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — On a soggy night full of free bases, messy scorebooks and Iowa frustration, the Hawkeyes were again toying with a midweek slipup. College baseball analysts will say judge a team largely on its weekend showings, but Iowa doesn’t have much room for error either way.
Tyler Cropley made sure at least the ending worked.
The Hawkeyes catcher swatted a walk-off grand slam into the Midwestern night, propelling Iowa to a 13-9 win over Bradley on Wednesday at Duane Banks Field. Cropley’s blast marked the Hawkeyes’ second walk-off homer in as many midweek games.
“I was sitting fastball, just looking for something I could elevate and just put in the outfield for a sac fly,” Cropley said. “I guess I hit it a little further than I planned.”
Reaching those ninth-inning heroics is a winding tale, one that’d certainly make the baseball gods cringe in disgust. Iowa (14-8) was cruising along with a 6-1 lead after five — its Johnny Wholestaff pitching plan working just fine.
Then, the strike zone vanished.
Hawkeye hurlers walked 10 in total, plus a hit batsman and two errors, to help streamline a Bradley comeback. The Braves (12-6) can certainly swing it, and they did, scoring five in the sixth and three more in the seventh for a 9-8 advantage. Four of their nine runs were scored by guys who reached via walk or error.
Iowa trotted out 10 pitchers in all. Only three didn’t issue at least one free pass.
“When you do that, you have to throw strikes,” Hawkeyes coach Rick Heller said. “And unfortunately once we got to the sixth inning, things kind of went downhill. Bradley’s a very good hitting team. We knew they weren’t going to go away, and they were going to challenge us with their bats at some point during that game.
“But we can’t give up eight runs in two innings, especially like we did when we had a 6-1 lead going into it. That’s the stuff that has to change.”
Iowa, though, didn’t fold. As the temperatures dropped and the window for an answer narrowed, it would’ve been easy to call it a night — especially for infielder Lorenzo Elion. The Hawkeyes sophomore had been stuck on the bench for eight innings and has seen his playing time diminish in recent weeks.
But that’s how baseball works sometimes. Up stepped Elion in the game’s biggest moment to date — pinch-hitting with two outs in the eighth and the tying run on second, Iowa desperately needing some sort of life.
Elion whipped a single through the right side, scoring Cropley from second by just a nose. Heller said he was sending his catcher regardless. It was a bang-bang play — but Bradley backstop Keaton Rice dropped the throw home to eliminate any drama.
“We knew they were a good team, and we had to come out and play,” Elion said. “That situation, we knew it was going to be a tight game. All of us pray to be in that situation. We grind hard for those type of plays.”
Iowa needed a couple more.
After closer Zach Daniels pushed through the ninth despite hitting a batter and moving him into scoring position with a wild pitch, the Hawkeyes had their chance to pounce. Singles from Mitchell Boe and Chris Whelan, who finished 4-for-5 with four runs scored, set the tone. Iowa then caught a break as a Robert Neustrom dribbler to second was bobbled, and no out was made.
Up stepped Cropley, who’s been the valued protection behind Neustrom Iowa desperately needed. The count crept to 2-2. The next pitch nearly peppered the scoreboard.
“I liked our fight tonight a lot,” Heller said. “Those arms that we faced the last three or four innings were high-quality arms, and to go out there and rally and not get down after we gave up a big lead shows a lot about the team and where we’re headed and the direction we’re going.”
Heading into another pivotal weekend series at No. 25 Illinois, Iowa would certainly rather head east with a thrilling win than a game it coughed up. The Bradley win itself isn’t too shabby — the Braves entered with a 44 RPI, likely Iowa’s strongest nonconference win so far.
Even if the victorious route wasn’t the smoothest.
“It shows,” Cropley said, “we can overcome some adversity.”
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.