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Iowa pitcher Cole McDonald breaks down the biggest difference between sophomore and junior year.

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Rick Heller didn’t have much hope earlier in the week. But the Hawkeyes received good news on injured starter Cole McDonald, who exited last Sunday’s start against Michigan with elbow discomfort.  

"We’re still cautiously optimistic," Heller said after Friday's 7-6 loss to Oklahoma State. "We’re going to check it out with the ultrasound (on Monday) to double-check the MRI (from Wednesday), and we’ll go from there.

"Cole said it felt a lot better and calmed down later in the week and didn’t really hurt too bad anymore. The doctor didn’t think there was a tear on the MRI that he saw. 

The fear was that McDonald, who already had one Tommy John procedure while in high school, would need a second. After serving up six hits and five runs over 3 2/3 innings against Michigan, McDonald exited in severe discomfort with one out in the fourth.   

The velocity was so down on his final pitch, Heller said it looked like a changeup. It was a fastball.

But it appears the Hawkeyes caught a break. McDonald had been locked in as the Sunday starter since the opening weekend, and was a reliable arm for much of the season. He churned out three consecutive quality starts against Minnesota (April 22), Ohio State (April 8) and Illinois (April 1), resulting in a sub-three ERA heading into the Michigan start.

McDonald won’t pitch this weekend versus Oklahoma State, but he could still come back at some point this season.

“With a guy who’s had prior Tommy John surgery, the scar tissue can sometimes break loose,” Heller said, “and it makes it feel very similar to what it did when he tore it the first time. We’re all kind of keep our fingers crossed there.”

Assuming the ultrasound comes back clean, Heller said they'll get McDonald on a throwing progression and possibly have him back for next weekend's Northwestern series.

Still, with its biggest weekend of the year on tap, Iowa must adjust on the fly without its Sunday arm. With the Hawkeyes’ series-finale starter still listed as TBD, here’s a look at which direction Iowa might go.   

Weekend rotation debut?

Freshman Jack Dreyer was scheduled to start Wednesday’s game against Western Illinois, before projected rain pulled the plug on the midweek affair. With Iowa’s bullpen drained after Tuesday’s marathon, Dreyer would’ve been let loose like a normal start.

The Iowa coaching staff has continually raved about the left-hander’s repertoire, but Dreyer’s freshman season has been up-and-down so far.

The Johnston product showed promise in his World University Games start, yielding one hit and an unearned run over four innings against eventual champion Japan. But Dreyer has struggled versus higher-end competition in 2018. In outings against postseason hopefuls UNLV, Missouri State and St. Louis, Dreyer got lit up for a combined eight earned runs in 3 1/3.

Dreyer has been better of late — one earned run allowed over his previous seven innings — although Oklahoma State isn’t Milwaukee, Northern Illinois, Coe College or Grand View.

But hey, someone has to grow up in a hurry.

"That’s probably the route we’ll go if we use a bunch of guys (Saturday)," Heller said. "That’d probably be what we’d be looking at." 

Closer to starter?

Heller could start de-facto closer Zach Daniels on Sunday, where his electric stuff would give Iowa the best chance for quality innings out of its starter. Daniels, who entered Friday with a 1.72 ERA and four saves, went four innings after McDonald exited and dominated.

But the hole that creates on the backend is quite large. Fifteen of Daniels’ 17 appearances have been more than one inning, so it’s not like Iowa just needs to find someone to throw the ninth if the junior right-hander starts on Sunday.

Daniels has been the Hawkeyes’ most reliable — at times, the only reliable — bullpen arm, and it hasn’t been close.

In an ideal weekend, Heller likes to use Daniels on Friday after ace Nick Allgeyer throws at least six, then go to Daniels again on Sunday in an extended save situation.   

That happened to start the Oklahoma State series, as Daniels threw 22 pitches over 1 1/3 innings in Friday's loss. Heller said the right-hander could go "probably an inning if we needed it to win" on Saturday, then "try to get as many out of him as we can on Sunday."  

That could come in a start, depending how Saturday unfolds, but Daniels will likely remain in the bullpen for now. 

Injury report

With starter Brady Schanuel in a funk for the bulk of the last month, Heller has mainly used Grant Judkins in an extended relief role on Saturdays. Four of the Pella product’s previous six outings have followed Schanuel and have lasted as long as five innings.

The weekend plan was to try to avoid using Judkins on Saturday, then start him Sunday. Unless "we felt like we needed Judkins (Saturday) to have a chance to win the game, you’ve got to go to him and sort it out on Sunday."

Then, Friday happened. 

After singling in a fourth-inning pinch-hit appearance, Judkins rolled his ankle stepping on first base and had to be pinch ran for. Heller said following the loss that his weekend status on the mound is to be determined. 

"When it rains, it pours there, you know?" Heller quipped. "We’re doing everything we can. They worked on him the rest of the game. Our trainer tried to get as much swelling out as he could, and we’ll hope for the best.

"It’s unfortunately his push foot — it’s not his land foot — and that’s the one you don’t want to have when you sprain one as a pitcher. That’s the story there."

Compounding the problem is Heller likely would’ve — in some capacity — turned to Trenton Wallace, who’s been Iowa’s midweek starter and looked good Tuesday with three scoreless innings. But forearm tightness cut that appearance short, and Wallace has been shut down for the Oklahoma State series.     

“Trenton had some forearm stiffness — he’s been battling it for four or five weeks,” Heller said. “He dealt with it quite a bit in high school. He felt a lot better on Wednesday, but then (Thursday) when he went out to throw, he felt it tighten up again.

“So they’ve decided to hold Trenton out for this weekend and kind of see what happens next week. If it doesn’t clear up, they’ll probably get him in and take a look at it as well. Not a good thing for us with two of our top pitchers out against a team like Oklahoma 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 msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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