IOWA CITY, Ia. — You learn a lot about a pitcher when, for the first time in his career, the ball starts flying around the yard. Routine dominance is easy to handle — what happens when adversity barges in, gets comfortable and won’t leave?
That was Cole McDonald’s reality in 2017. After a stellar prep career at New Hampton and a promising freshman season as Iowa’s midweek starter, the Hawkeyes' right-hander slammed hard into a sophomore wall.
It wasn’t a couple poor starts — more like an entire season full of them — and McDonald was stuck with the mental aftermath.
“It was the first time I really failed,” said McDonald, who had a 6.96 ERA last year and was eventually yanked from the weekend rotation midway through conference play. “It wasn’t just like I failed once. I had a bad start, and then it was just like six starts in a row where it was just bad.
“I actually cried after a game because I beat myself up so much, mentally. I was getting consumed with it. If I had a bad start Sunday, I would think about it Monday through Saturday, and I wouldn’t be thinking about my next start Sunday. I wasn’t even trying to get better, just sulking.”
Now, compare that breakdown to this updated one.
“I think Cole is the best Sunday starter in the league,” Iowa pitching coach Desi Druschel said. “He deserves that because he works like nobody else.”
Time heals a ton, and slowly but surely over the last year, McDonald has morphed that 2017 turbulence into 2018 success. Mental maturation, combined with an unwavering determination to improve and a deeper dive into the intricacies of pitching, has the Iowa junior providing stability at the back end of the Hawkeyes’ weekend rotation.
Poor starts are much less frequent this season, as McDonald (2-1) owns a 3.52 ERA over 30 2/3 innings heading into Iowa’s weekend series against Ohio State.
With a doubleheader scheduled for Saturday, McDonald’s Sunday start could easily dictate whether the Hawkeyes (17-9, 3-2 Big Ten) emerge with a second straight series win and keep the momentum flowing.
“He just seems a lot more confident and looks more comfortable on the mound,” Iowa coach Rick Heller said. “He’s been able to deal with some adversity way better than he did before, and he’s able to hit with his offspeed stuff way better than he did before, which has really enabled him to stay in the game for longer periods of time.
“He competes hard and doesn’t let a bad inning affect him.”
A microcosm of that improvement arrived last Sunday at Illinois. Provided a chance to help Iowa seal a huge series win over the then-No. 22 Illini, McDonald was lit up for three hits and two runs in the opening frame. His old self would’ve folded, unable to shake free from the instant discouragement.
As was the case in eight of his 11 starts in 2017, McDonald likely wouldn’t have lasted beyond the fourth inning.
Not so for the current product. McDonald yielded two hits the rest of the way over 6 1/3 strong innings, propelling Iowa to a series-clinching victory in the snow. Illinois didn’t score again after its two-run first.
“I don’t really worry about things that I can’t control as much,” McDonald said, “just control what I can control, attack each batter and whatever result happens, happens. There’s nothing that I can really do about it, and I think that’s the main thing that’s different about me this year than last year. I was always worried about the result and wasn’t really focused on the process.”
That confidence restoration first began this summer and continued through the offseason.
Despite having Tommy John surgery back early in his junior year of high school, McDonald and the Iowa staff didn’t really see the snap on his breaking pitches fully return until this past fall. The procedure, while common, can be a fickle beast, and McDonald’s mental recovery was an extended one.
He threw 18 innings in 2014 before surgery and missed all of 2015 on the mound at New Hampton. McDonald’s freshman numbers were solid — 4-1 with a 3.33 ERA — but he admitted that season involved “a lot of learning.” The sophomore disaster followed.
“I’m a type of person who likes to have a routine,” McDonald said, “and not pitching for two years against high school hitters and then coming here and seeing how good collegiate hitters are, there was so much I had to learn. I had to get my (velocity) back. I had to learn how to pitch and not just throw.”
Then came Iowa’s Taiwan trip. McDonald was slated to start the fourth contest at the World University Games, which ended up being the medal-round opener against the Czech Republic. His last meaningful start was three months earlier, a disappointing performance in the Big Ten Tournament.
On a warm, muggy day halfway across the world, nothing mirrored that outing or any of the tough ones that had recently piled up. The sharp bite on McDonald’s breaking ball had resurfaced. The zeroes, in both the hits and runs column, started accumulating.
This was something special. This was the breakthrough McDonald so desperately needed.
“That was the talk in the dugout,” Heller recalled. “I looked at (associate head coach) Marty (Sutherland) because Desi was calling pitches, and we both looked at each other like, ‘There it is. That’s the guy. That’s what we envisioned when we watched Cole pitch in high school.’ That day, everything was really electric coming out of his hand.”
McDonald’s 97-pitch masterpiece was Iowa’s first nine-inning no-hitter since 1965. Buoyed by that momentum, the 6-foot-1 right-hander ripped off a dominant fall where he was hardly touched.
Another weapon was added as well. With the help of Iowa’s TrackMan software, Druschel and the Hawkeyes staff honed in on McDonald’s pitching mechanics to split his breaking ball — a “slurve” if you will — into a sharp slider and a true 12-6 curveball.
It’s still a work in progress, but last weekend’s start at Illinois delivered significant improvement.
“When we look through the stats right now,” Druschel said, “we have seen the effectiveness — but he’s been throwing (the curveball) really low. We need to get hitters to swing at it. They’re not swinging at it right now, but this last weekend we started to get some swings on it. So I think you’re really going to see it start to play.
“… It’s a plus pitch when guys offer at it.”
Drastic restoration has already been completed, but expect McDonald to keep working. If Iowa is to make it three regional appearances in four years, the Hawkeyes will need consistent length from their Sunday starter.
McDonald certainly embraces the responsibility. He’s trekked through baseball darkness and emerged on the other side.
“If I have a bad start, I can’t do anything about it,” McDonald said. “Learn from my mistakes, try to get better and look forward to next week — that’s what has helped me have a lot better year than last year.”
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.