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Iowa coach Rick Heller on series win: “This was a big one”

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Moments after the final out was recorded, snowflakes started peppering the Duane Banks Field turf on Sunday afternoon. Christmas music blared over the loudspeaker as fans filed out, mocking what was a comically bad stretch of baseball weather.

Iowa’s mental fortitude was certainly tested as ridiculously low temperatures, nagging winds and a late heap of snow provided a wintry backdrop to a crucial April series. The weekend set against Ohio State had three different slots — from Friday, Saturday, Sunday to Saturday, Sunday, Monday to a doubleheader Saturday and one game Sunday. But one way or another, the Hawkeyes needed to keep rolling at home.

Through adversity, they did, squeezing out a 2-1 series-clinching win Sunday after splitting Saturday's doubleheader. Scoring chances were squandered, and innings got tight. But Iowa (19-10, 5-3 Big Ten) mustered enough resiliency in unfavorable conditions.

“Baseball’s a crazy game,” said sophomore Grant Judkins, who delivered the game-winning hit with an RBI double in the eighth. “You’ve just got to stay locked in, be confident for that one opportunity you’ve going to get. You’ve just got to be ready at all times.”

No Hawkeye personifies that more than Judkins, who entered the series finale with just 13 at-bats and two hits through 28 games. A hamstring injury early on severely hampered the two-way standout, also limiting Judkins to just 14 innings on the mound. But Iowa needed the Pella standout in the worst way Sunday afternoon.

Before Judkins’ knock, Iowa was 1-for-12 with runners on and 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position, having left eight men on base. Although Iowa put up nine runs in Saturday’s nightcap, the Hawkeyes were similarly unclutch in a 2-1 Game 1 loss that ruined a chance at a sweep.

But Judkins finally made the Buckeyes pay. After a two-out single from Justin Jenkins followed a walk to Kyle Crowl, Judkins calmly dumped a 2-0 pitch in front of left-fielder Tyler Cowles.

That was enough.

“I just felt, like, watching him in practice for the last 10 days or so, Grant’s bat was really starting to come back with the time off with the hamstring injury,” Iowa coach Rick Heller said. “Even though he was cleared a couple weeks ago, offensively, I felt like the (hamstring issue) was maybe holding him back.

“I don’t feel that anymore.”

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Iowa's Grant Judkins breaks down his game-winning double.

That mental toughness spilled over to the mound as well, where right-hander Cole McDonald completed a strong weekend of Iowa starting pitching with his most dominant outing of the year.

This junior season has been a resurgent one for the right-hander, and Sunday’s outing magnified that. McDonald breezed through the Ohio State lineup, punching out eight while surrendering three hits over six innings.

He made one real mistake — a fourth-inning solo homer by Noah McGowan — but was otherwise impressive.

“So last year, I would’ve been thinking, ‘Alright, hey — we’ve got to get the series; got to win this game’ — I would’ve put a lot of pressure on myself,” McDonald said. “But when I start on Sunday, I can sit back and watch the Friday and Saturday games and kind of see what hitters’ deficiencies are and where their holes are in their swing so I can go out there and execute the gameplan I want to execute.

“Just took it one pitch at a time, one inning at a time — and good things happened.”

Iowa has dropped just three home series since the start of 2015, a stretch that includes 13 of 17 series victories and one split.

With upcoming road trips to Bradley in the midweek, plus weekend treks to Nebraska and Minnesota, the Hawkeyes will have only two homes games between now and April 27. Pulling out this weekend was a must.

“For us to find a way to get a win for down the road, this was a big one,” Heller said. “It showed a lot of character, a lot of toughness. Poor conditions, for both teams, but we found a way to get it done in the end.”

On media day, back in February, Heller said he felt this unit would play better as the season wore on. The Hawkeyes have shown that, and you can start to see the roots of a postseason team emerging. Both Baseball America and D1Baseball.com released their midseason projections this week — the former slotting Iowa as the first team out and the latter pegging Iowa as a No. 3 seed in the Clemson regional.

There is still plenty of season left, and the Hawkeyes have hefty challenges left on the schedule. But this weekend was another notch on an adversity-filled belt. The Hawkeyes aren't the most talented team in America. At this point, though, you can’t throw a situation at them they haven’t seen.

Even a snow-caked field in April.

“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” Heller said.

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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