IOWA CITY, Ia. — Having backed themselves into a must-sweep corner for the final series, you could feel the tension bubbling from the Hawkeye dugout at weekend’s start. Thursday’s opener was a close game Iowa had to have.
But the Hawkeyes pulled it out, loosening up Rick Heller’s bunch and opening the floodgates. By weekend’s end, Iowa had shed that pressure and accomplished what it needed to.
“We came around,” right-fielder Robert Neustrom said.
Saturday’s 8-4 win over Penn State finished off the Hawkeyes’ first conference sweep this season, and keeps their dangling at-large hopes alive heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
Iowa (33-18, 13-9) will be the No. 6 seed in Omaha and faces third-seeded Michigan at 9 a.m. Wednesday. Should the Hawkeyes win there, they’d battle the winner of Purdue (No. 2 seed) and Ohio State (No. 7 seed) at 5 p.m. Thursday.
“Bottom line is we found a way to get it done,” Iowa coach Rick Heller said. “It’s not easy to sweep. We found a way to get three wins this weekend, moved up in the standings and won on senior day. A lot going on this weekend — a lot of distractions — and I thought the guys handled it pretty well.”
With another solid crowd on hand for the Duane Banks Field finale, Iowa didn’t mess around against lowly Penn State (15-34, 3-21). The Hawkeyes grabbed control with a five-run second, capitalizing on a pivotal throwing error. Neustrom delivered the crucial blow with a two-run single, one of four hits in the inning.
Jack Dreyer took control from there. The freshman southpaw continued his upward trend with six solid innings, yielding just two hits, two runs and one walk with six strikeouts.
“These last couple outings have been just showing myself what I can do,” said Dreyer, who now has a 1.69 ERA in three weekend starts.
The Johnston product only had one turbulent inning — Penn State’s two-run fifth, where Dreyer walked one and plunked another before surrendering a run-scoring double.
As evident with last season’s Big Ten Tournament run, the Hawkeyes will need at least something from each piece if they are to make some Omaha noise. In just three weeks, Dreyer has earned Heller’s trust as the solid No. 3 arm behind starters Nick Allgeyer and Cole McDonald.
Dreyer’s next appearance could very well be with Iowa’s season on the line. His coach now has confidence he’ll deliver.
“(Dreyer) makes our staff that much stronger, knowing that you’re going to get three quality starts if you need them,” Heller said. “What Jack’s been able to do has really picked us up at the back part of the season.”
After Iowa’s offense bounced right back with a three-run sixth, another crucial pitching development unfolded. Brady Schanuel, who was yanked from the weekend rotation and has been ineffective for the better part of six weeks, tossed a clean eighth with a strikeout.
The right-hander needed only eight pitches to slice through three hitters, ramping up his fastball into the mid-90s. Schanuel’s lack of quality starts have been a major disappointment down the stretch, but the chance for meaningful innings hasn’t faded.
Iowa will undoubtedly need Schanuel in some form or fashion next week.
“Whether it is out of the ‘pen — or if it’s that fourth start — or whatever it might be,” Heller said, “it gives us a lot of different options that maybe we didn’t have two weeks ago.
“It makes you feel a lot more comfortable about your pitching heading into the tournament.”
That quest begins against the Wolverines, which Iowa took two of three from at home in late April. The Hawkeyes have work to do if they want to make it three regional appearances in four years — but will head to Omaha with confidence.
A slipup this weekend would’ve erased any at-large hope. Iowa at least kept that opportunity in play.
“We’ve got a lot of guys on this team who yearn for those moments,” Neustrom said. “Nothing’s too big. We understand this game. We understand at times, it can feel bigger than life. But at the same time, we’re just out here having fun.
“We’ve got a lot of good guys, and that’s huge having that experience. I think it’s going to suit us well coming up this week.”
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for The Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.