'All the goals' still attainable as Hawkeyes' baseball prepare for another tough stretch

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — With the weekend cut short thanks to another weather-induced cancellation, Rick Heller sat his team down following an impromptu Sunday practice. The Iowa baseball coach reiterated everything still in play.

In a sport where laser-focus is imperative throughout a grueling season, players often remain zoomed in on the task at hand. Well-timed, big-picture reminders, though, can be the perfect jolt amid the baseball marathon.

Iowa's Justin Jenkins scoops up a deep hit during the Hawkeyes' game against Cornell College at Duane Banks Field on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.

“All the goals that we set at the beginning of the year — all the places we wanted to go, all the things we wanted to do — here we are with (19) games left, and every single one of those goals is attainable still,” Heller said this week. “We hold that in our hands, and that’s a good feeling going into the rest of the season.”

It’s been a hectic opening month of league play for the Hawkeyes (22-11, 6-4 Big Ten Conference). The Midwest’s collective spring resistance has resulted in only one of Iowa’s first four conference series unfolding without a cancellation or schedule change. That stretch included the bulk of the Big Ten’s upper echelon as well.

But here the Hawkeyes sit in a decent spot. Up ahead is another daunting stretch, which begins this weekend at No. 25 Minnesota (23-10, 7-1) and continues with home showdowns versus Michigan (April 27-29), Missouri (May 1) and Oklahoma State (May 4-6).

The postseason lights are inching closer. Iowa is planted in the race.

“It makes everything exciting,” right-fielder Robert Neustrom said. “You should play the game one way, but when you have a lot to play for, it makes it a lot more fun.”

Baseball America and D1Baseball.com released another round of regional projections this week, and both have Iowa in the mix. The former slotted the Hawkeyes as the third team out, while the latter has Heller’s squad as a No. 3 seed in the Vanderbilt regional.

Productive showings over the next three weeks would certainly add more clarity to Iowa’s postseason picture. Both publications have Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri and Oklahoma State currently in or just outside the field of 64. As of Thursday, all four have RPIs inside the top 50.

That stretch begins with another series alteration. Snow pounded Minneapolis last weekend and into this week, leaving Minnesota’s Siebert Field covered and unplayable for Friday and Saturday. The Hawkeyes and Gophers will shift to the Twins’ Target Field for the first two games, then pivot back to Siebert Field for Sunday’s finale.

Par for the course at this point. When you’ve already had two cancellations, four schedule changes and three doubleheaders in four weeks, a simple venue change is easy money.

“I’m really happy with how the guys have handled it,” Heller said. “That means they’re buying into the plan, and they’re buying into the system that we talk about all the time. Take care of what you can control and do the very best you can when you get the chance to practice, hit, field, throw — whatever it might be, wherever it might be. That’s what we’ve had to do this season a lot.

“The other thing is realizing that everybody’s going through it, so why feel sorry for yourself? You just have to make the most of it and try to stay as warm as you can and be ready to go when you’re called upon.” 

That adversity experienced doesn’t make this weekend’s challenge any easier. Minnesota enters as one of the Big Ten’s hottest squads, having won five straight series and 13 of 17.

The Golden Gophers can swing it with authority and rank top-10 nationally in runs per game (7.7, ninth), batting average (.310, ninth) and on-base percentage (.408, seventh). Last weekend’s series win over Purdue included Minnesota putting up 40 combined runs — in two games.

Iowa, though, wants the treacherous route.

“That’s what gets us excited to play big-time baseball,” reliever Zach Daniels said. “We wanted to face the ranked opponents, the teams at the top of the Big Ten. So we’re going to give our best effort, and we’ll be ready to go for the weekend.”

Even though the team's on the postseason’s doorstep, things haven’t been perfect. The free bases are still piling up, and the Hawkeyes’ focus during midweek games hasn’t always been the sharpest. While the weekend rotation has been a formidable unit, the Iowa bats have been hit and miss.

Heller noted as such, saying, “Eliminate the free bases, and hopefully, you get the hits and pitchers do a good job. If we do that, we know we can beat anybody in the country. But we also know that if we don’t do that, we can get beat by anybody in the country. We’ve talked about that from the very beginning.”

A month from now, Iowa will be readying for the Big Ten Tournament. Where the Hawkeyes’ postseason stock sits then is solely in their hands.         

“Just go play,” Heller said, “and let the chips fall where they may. That’s all you can do.”

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.