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Rick Heller recaps a huge series-clinching win over Oklahoma State. Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — It may look like a late-season breather, after seven straight weekends of high-end competition. But the Hawkeyes’ final two series against Big Ten bottom feeders carry just as much weight as any other slate.

After bolstering its resume with a quality series win over then-No. 19 Oklahoma State last weekend, Iowa (28-16, 9-7 Big Ten) — while trending the right way — can’t let off the gas if it wants to clinch a third regional berth in four years. The Hawkeyes’ last two conference foes may look unintimidating — but they can wreck Iowa’s RPI and play spoiler in a moment’s notice.

The Hawkeyes’ final push begins Friday at Northwestern (14-28, 4-17) and continues the following weekend at home versus Penn State (11-30, 3-18). The Wildcats and Nittany Lions currently sit 12th and 13th, respectively, in the conference standings and have combined for one series win. Sandwiched in between is a midweek showdown at Western Illinois (13-25), another team ready to sour Iowa’s resume if the Hawkeyes slip up.

Rick Heller has been at it a while and knows how quickly the game of baseball can humble an unfocused squad. Not long after Iowa toppled the Cowboys on Sunday afternoon, the Hawkeyes coach hammered home exactly that. 

“You have to play well in this league every single day — if you don’t, you’re going to lose,” Heller said. “That’s what I reiterated to the team (on Sunday) before they went out for finals. We have to keep our focus.

“If anybody thinks just because we finished the gauntlet part of the schedule that it’s going to be easy, you’re sadly mistaken. Those guys are going to be coming for us, and we better play our best.”

Iowa enters the Northwestern series 49th in the RPI, firmly in bubble territory as far as the metric’s general framework is concerned. With the Hawkeyes’ final three opponents sporting unsightly figures — the Wildcats at 231, Western Illinois at 283 and Penn State at 237 as of Thursday afternoon — Iowa’s RPI will inevitably drop just by taking the field.

That number will soar even faster in the wrong direction if a couple losses pile up.

When HawkCentral spoke with Baseball America’s Teddy Cahill and D1Baseball.com’s Aaron Fitt ahead of the Oklahoma State series, both analysts indicated Iowa likely needs two sweeps or a 5-1 showing in its last six conference games to feel good heading into the Big Ten Tournament. The Western Illinois midweek is a must as well.

“Coach Heller has definitely harped on it — you can’t take those guys lightly,” senior Chris Whelan said after Sunday’s 11-3 win. “These last two series are as big as anything. They’re as big as this (past) weekend, so we can’t take them lightly. We’ve just got to play our baseball.”

Iowa will again have to do so shorthanded on the mound.

Heller confirmed that Sunday starter Cole McDonald (elbow) will miss the Northwestern series, despite receiving a clean ultrasound on Monday.

The right-hander exited his April 29 start against Michigan, missed the Oklahoma State weekend but should be back for Iowa’s stretch run. In McDonald’s absence, southpaw Jack Dreyer will make another weekend start.

“(McDonald) had some inflammation over the area where they moved his ulnar nerve (during Tommy John surgery in high school),” Heller said, “and I was hopeful that we’d have him maybe on Sunday for a short relief appearance. But it looks like we’re going to hold him out until Penn State.

“They’ve put him on some meds that is going to try to get rid of the inflammation, and they want to make sure it’s all out before we pitch him. But he’s pretty active. He was throwing 120 feet (Tuesday) without much trouble. That’s a real positive.”

The same can’t be said for injured left-hander Trenton Wallace. After tossing three scoreless innings last Tuesday against Missouri, Iowa’s freshman midweek starter left with reoccurring forearm tightness.

Wallace had an ultrasound this week. The results weren’t favorable.  

“They did the ultrasound (Tuesday), and they felt like in all the physical exams, there was nothing wrong,” Heller said. “He had been having some forearm tightness off and on for quite a while.

“But the ultrasound showed a small tear. And so he’s going to get an MRI to see what it shows. You just never really now because pretty much every pitcher is going to show some wear and tear. And Dr. Wolf just wants to make sure that it’s substantial enough to make a decision on shutdown or rehab or if he would need surgery. So (we're) probably without Trenton for the foreseeable future.”  

There’s never a good time to be down a couple pitching options — but this late in the season is as inopportune as it gets. Another strong offensive showing could negate the mound uncertainty, as Iowa looks to keep momentum flowing.

The Hawkeyes can’t afford a letdown.

“We have to focus on the big picture,” Heller said. “We all know that we’re not good enough to just show up and beat anybody. That’s a fact.”

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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