Just as the snowflakes started to fall at Illinois Field, Iowa’s offense finally heated up.
Stifled for the better part of five innings, the Hawkeyes broke through for two runs in the sixth and two more in the seventh, clinching a huge series win over the No. 22 Fighting Illini with Sunday’s 4-2 win.
Iowa (16-9, 3-2 Big Ten Conference) was 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position when third baseman Lorenzo Elion came up with the bases loaded in the sixth, having done little versus Illinois starter Ty Weber. The Hawkeyes were in a 2-0 hole and needed a lift.
Elion delivered, slicing a two-run single through the right side to pull Iowa even. That base knock was the jolt the Hawkeyes needed, as Rick Heller’s squad busted through the following frame.
After Chris Whelan reached and stole second to open the seventh, Tyler Cropley handed Iowa a 3-2 lead with a single through the left side. Cropley later stole second and narrowly scored on Kyle Crowl’s run-scoring hit.
That late push made a winner out of right-hander Cole McDonald, who gave the Hawkeyes exactly what they needed with the series on the line. The Iowa junior surrendered two runs in the first but was dominant after that, serving up five hits with six strikeouts over 6 1/3 innings.
McDonald exited in the seventh at 113 pitches for trusted reliever Zach Daniels, who wiggled out of a two-out, bases-loaded jam in the seventh. Daniels worked himself into another bases-loaded situation in the eighth, but reliever Grant Leonard came on to halt the Illinois rally with an inning-ending double play.
The Illini (17-7, 4-2) then put the tying runs in scoring position in the ninth, but right-hander Nick Nelsen shut the door for the save.
Sunday's game was originally scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. but was moved up to noon because of the wintry forecast in central Illinois.
The series win not only gives Iowa some Big Ten juice, but also provides a nice boost to the Hawkeyes’ resume. Iowa's RPI now sits at 34 — 50 spots better than it was entering conference play.
The Hawkeyes will look to keep the momentum going this week, with a Wednesday showdown versus Grand View and a home series against Ohio State.
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.