IOWA CITY, Ia. — Back home after a troubling four-game road swing, the Hawkeyes spent much of Thursday night in a fog.
On the other side was Big Ten cellar-dweller Penn State, but Iowa — in a crucial series where urgency is paramount — struggled finding separation. Hits were hard to find, scoring chances missed, bullpen futility evident.
But Iowa avoided disaster, in a weekend where the Hawkeyes have zero margin for error in keeping their fading at-large hopes alive.
Nick Allgeyer stifled Penn State for seven strong innings, and the offense finally awoke with two late runs to break an eighth-inning tie. That lifted the Hawkeyes to a 3-1 win at Duane Banks Field, officially clinching a spot in next week’s Big Ten Tournament.
It wasn’t a smooth last week for the Hawkeyes (31-18, 11-9 Big Ten), which dropped two of three against lowly Northwestern and nearly suffered a crippling midweek loss at Western Illinois on Tuesday. That’s created a must-sweep scenario versus Penn State, coupled with work in Omaha if Iowa is going to snag an at-large bid.
“It’s obviously in the back of everybody’s mind, kind of where we’re falling,” said redshirt junior Chris Whelan, who finished 3-for-5 and gave Iowa some needed insurance with an RBI single in the eighth. “But that’s not really what we’re trying to focus on. It’s more of a day-by-day type thing.
“We’ve got the next two games ahead of us, and that’s all we’re focusing on right now. We’ve obviously got to play our best baseball at this time of year. We’ve got to take care of business this weekend before we start thinking about anything else.”
Thursday’s affair wasn’t settled until late. Tied 1-1 in the eighth after Zach Daniels surrendered the tying run in the top half, the Hawkeyes needed a final push.
Kyle Crowl opened the frame with a walk before Ben Norman dumped an opposite-field double just inside the left-field chalk. Crowl scored from first to hand Iowa a 2-1 lead, and Norman later crossed home on Whelan’s knock.
It’s been a rough year for Norman, who hasn’t seen sophomore success materialize after being named a freshman All-American in 2017. The left-fielder entered Thursday hitting .196 with 11 RBIs — but his eighth-inning poke was more than welcomed.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs this year,” Norman said, “but I think sometimes, it’s kind of helped me mentally — where I know I’ve been low — and don’t think about anything that’s happened. All I think about is the future.
“… I didn’t really put a good swing (on the double), but it ended up finding a hole. Which is what we needed.”
Still, the Hawkeye offense slept-walked through much of the initial action. Penn State starter Bailey Dees entered with a 6.26 ERA and 28 hits yielded in 23 innings, but Iowa couldn’t solve the right-hander early.
The Hawkeyes had one hit until the fifth, left 11 on base and finished 2-for-8 with runners in scoring position.
“It was a grind-it-out day, and you could feel some tension,” Hawkeyes coach Rick Heller said. It wasn’t free and easy tonight.”
Allgeyer kept Iowa afloat. The Hawkeye ace had Penn State (15-32, 3-19) fooled all night, tossing seven scoreless with six strikeouts, five hits and two walks. Although Allgeyer admitted Thursday wasn’t his strongest outing command-wise, he delivered an ace-like outing in a pivotal spot.
“I didn’t try to add any added pressure to a game that’s pretty much a must-win,” Allgeyer said, “but I just try to go out there and do the same thing I do every (start), no matter who we’re playing.
“I thought I had some good stuff in innings two, three and four. I think I had five strikeouts in those three innings. But other than that — I’ve got to be honest — I didn’t have much command of the offspeed tonight. Defense helped me out. I got some weakly-hit balls on the fastball. The result was good, but a lot of things to work on going into next week.”
That’ll be in Omaha, where Iowa can still mathematically climb as high as the No. 4 seed but will likely end up sixth or seventh.
Either way, plenty of work remains.
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.