OMAHA, Neb. — Fighting for their baseball lives, someone had to break up the offensive futility and ignite a spark. The Iowa bats had fallen into TD Ameritrade Park’s cavernous trap, where hard-hit balls and scoring chances go to die.
Everyone in the lineup gave it a shot. No one broke through.
One day after mustering a single hit in their Big Ten Tournament-opening loss to Michigan, the Hawkeyes couldn’t do much better. Rick Heller’s lineup scraped out four knocks — but nothing more — in Thursday’s 2-0 elimination-game defeat to Ohio State.
“We didn’t really get anything going,” right-fielder Robert Neustrom said. “It wasn’t even about stringing things together. These last two games were pretty pitiful, offensively. We know we’re better than that, and it just came at a really bad time.”
Just three weeks ago, this Iowa baseball season seemed poised for another riveting regional run. Now, most likely, it’s come to an abrupt halt with a loud thud.
The Hawkeyes (33-20) had an RPI of 70 entering the day, much too high for at-large purposes. And despite a crop of solid series wins, their down-the-stretch performance doesn’t carry much weight.
“We had a team to put wins on the board at the end of the season when we had to. It just didn’t happen,” right-hander Cole McDonald said. “And it’s just really disappointing because we all know we could’ve kept on playing.
“We just didn’t play well at the end of the season.”
In Omaha, that starts with the bats.
Iowa exits the postseason with one run and zero RBIs to its name, again struggling to muster anything substantial on Thursday. Ohio State’s Ryan Feltner carved up the Hawkeyes for six shutout innings, and sidewinding reliever Seth Kinker did the rest.
When the few scoring chances Iowa got popped up, the Hawkeyes wilted. Iowa put the leadoff man on in the third, the fourth, the seventh and the eighth. Not once did a black-and-gold player reach third base.
“With our offense, if the top three or four guys aren’t hitting, or at least one of them, it makes it difficult for us to score,” Heller said. “We just haven’t really had a spell this season where that happened. We’ve been really fortunate the entire year where if one guy wasn’t hitting, somebody else was.”
Inside the spacious confines of TD Ameritrade — which plays big, especially when the wind whips in — everyone went cold.
The Hawkeyes’ bopping quartet of Chris Whelan, Neustrom, Tyler Cropley and Matt Hoeg finished the tournament a combined 2-for-28 with seven strikeouts. Of Iowa’s five Omaha hits, none went for extra bases.
McDonald did keep Iowa within reach despite early inefficiency. The junior starter surrendered seven hits and needed 77 pitches to get through 4 1/3, but McDonald mitigated the damage in crucial spots.
Ohio State plated one in the first on Tyler Cowles’ RBI double and another in the fifth on Kobie Foppe’s run-scoring single. But from there, relievers Nick Nelsen, Grant Judkins and Grant Leonard gave up just three hits in 4 2/3 scoreless innings.
Many wondered pre-tournament if Iowa owned the pitching firepower to rip off another deep run and defend its title. The Hawkeye arms were nearly spotless — two earned runs in 18 2/3.
The offense, though, never gave Iowa a chance.
“There’s nothing magical that went wrong,” Heller said. “We just kind of hit the skids offensively, and unfortunately, that’s baseball. We didn’t have one guy who was hot who could carry us or jumpstart us.
“And it cost us.”
While this season marks more progress in Heller’s Hawkeye resurrection, disappointment lingered in the postgame air. Iowa spent much of the last two months in regional discussion, only for a few late slip-ups to erase that chance.
After an early Omaha exit, the Hawkeyes are left to wonder just how special this season could’ve been.
“When you consider the amount of wins — I think we obviously did decent and all that — but other than that, you’re going to consider it as kind of a lost season,” McDonald said. “That’s just how it goes. It’s really disappointing.”
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.