IOWA CITY, Ia. — In his first pitching appearance in 19 days, Cole McDonald brought the heat.
The junior from New Hampton, returning to the Iowa rotation after missing two starts with ulnar-nerve inflammation, hit 94 mph on the radar gun early in the Hawkeyes’ eventual 9-1 win against Penn State.
Normally, his fastball tops out at 90 (maybe 92) mph. He said Friday night was the first time he'd ever reached 94 in a game.
“I felt pretty good about just throwing fastball,” McDonald said. “I didn’t think any of their hitters were going to touch it, especially when I looked up and saw where my (velocity) was at.”
While McDonald didn’t get the win (he was removed after 65 pitches, with coach Rick Heller being careful to ease his right-hander back), he gave the Hawkeyes a high-octane outing in must-win territory for their flickering at-large NCAA regional hopes.
“It was a lot of adrenaline,” McDonald said.
McDonald struck out seven in four one-hit innings, reliever Grant Judkins struck out eight more in five terrific innings, and Tyler Cropley drove in five runs in the Iowa victory.
Cropley’s two-run single in the bottom of the fifth inning broke open the scoring, and his three-run double in the seventh finished it.
But the real story of the night was McDonald, who thought three weeks ago when his arm went limp against Michigan that he might be facing Tommy John surgery — like he did in high school.
It felt the same, he said. But thankfully, scans showed it was just inflammation. No tear.
“I was expecting the worst-case scenario, honestly. It just didn’t feel good,” McDonald said. “… Once I started throwing a few days after and there wasn’t any pain, I knew there wasn’t a tear, because it didn’t feel the same way (as in high school). I’m really happy with that. So I’m good to go.”
The way McDonald was throwing (the only hit he allowed was against the final hitter he faced, in the fifth inning), it reminded Heller of how the junior threw a no-hitter for Team USA in the World University Games in Taiwan. Heller thinks McDonald has potential to be the team's ace in 2019.
“That was quality stuff, electric stuff out of Cole tonight,” Heller said. “It made me think about the no-hitter he threw in Taipei. It looked just like that for nine innings. Super happy for Cole. I don’t think he had any problems at all with how his elbow felt.”
If McDonald (3-1, 3.09 ERA) can bring this kind of heat and momentum into next week’s Big Ten Tournament in Omaha, the Hawkeyes would have a better chance to make some noise.
The Hawkeyes remained in position for the No. 7 seed at the conference tourney; if they win Saturday and Indiana (36-15, 13-9) loses against Maryland, Iowa could climb to No. 6.
The more important task, though, is to record its first conference series sweep of the season. A loss to Penn State (15-33, 3-20) would basically eliminate Iowa's chance at getting an NCAA at-large bid.
“We can’t really let up. Especially tomorrow,” leadoff man Chris Whelan said of Saturday's 6:30 p.m. regular-season finale, which will be televised on ESPNU. “We had a good win tonight. But you can’t take our foot off the gas for a second. Got to get good rest tonight and come back with the same mentality tomorrow. Just trying to keep it rolling going into the Big Ten Tournament, and see what can happen.”