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Grant Judkins discusses his quest to earn a weekend rotation spot Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — Weekend finales often reveal a lot about where a collegiate pitching staff stands. Most teams can trot out a reliable Friday option and a decent Saturday piece — but Sunday consistency usually separates mediocre teams from the elite.

Start there when analyzing the biggest unknowns among Iowa’s arms. Senior Cole McDonald and sophomore Jack Dreyer headline the weekend rotation, but the Hawkeyes will need reliability in potential rubber matches.

The answer could come from someone now considered a program vet.

It’s taken some time to settle in, but there’s optimism surrounding Grant Judkins as he enters his junior season. The former Pella standout and Iowa Gatorade player of the year, Judkins’ two-way responsibilities are seemingly shifting more toward the mound.

He’ll likely get the first crack as Iowa’s third starter in next weekend’s Diamond 9 Sunshine State Classic Series, where the Hawkeyes will face George Mason, Pittsburgh and Marshall. Judkins would get the Thundering Herd in Sunday’s finale.

“If you ask me right now, it’d probably be Grant Judkins (on Sunday),” Iowa coach Rick Heller said at Tuesday’s media day. “Cam Baumann’s right there. When we go to Hawaii, Cam is probably going to be the fourth starter since we’re going to play a four-game series over there. It’s been a battle between them two, and then Duncan Davitt has been in that mix as well.

“We’ll have to see how that one shakes out. But the first weekend, I’d probably tell you right now it’s going to be Grant Judkins.”

Heller’s tenure is littered with guys finding their stride during their upperclassmen years, and Judkins could be the next example. His transition from prep phenom to Big Ten product has included obstacles and adversity, but there’s still time for a smooth finish.

Judkins came to Iowa City with lofty credentials: top-250 prospect status by Perfect Game, the Register’s 2016 All-Iowa baseball player of the year and more. He boasted gaudy two-way stats, including a .421 batting average and a 0.64 ERA as a senior.

Balancing both has been bumpier in the Big Ten.

Judkins settled in as Iowa’s designated hitter in 2017 with 31 starts, but his 7.59 ERA as the Hawkeyes’ midweek starter was a team-worst. Things flipped last year. Although hamstring issues limited Judkins’ offensive output to just 30 at-bats, he became one of Iowa’s more reliable relievers in the season’s final stretch.

Now comes a chance for an even greater impact.

“I have that Sunday spot in mind. It’s a goal I’ve had since I’ve been here,” Judkins said. “Whatever happens will happen, but I’m just going to do whatever I can to help the team. Just the last few years, I’ve learned a lot from the experience I’ve gained. Just taking what I can and applying that.”

“Juggling the (two-way responsibilities) hasn’t been the easiest, but it’s just a matter of what I want to focus on. This year, I’ve been focusing more on the pitching side of it with a goal of a weekend rotation spot. But I’m not letting up on the hitting, either. It’s just a matter of how I allocate my time.”

It’ll lean more toward the mound if Judkins comes out firing in this crucial role. Iowa went 10-2 with two cancellations in 14 weekend finales last year. Nine times, the Hawkeyes entered Game 3 with a chance to either win or sweep the series.

No matter who’s considered a staff’s clear-cut ace, every pitcher is the No. 1 starter on the day he throws. There are glimpses that Judkins is ready for a breakthrough.

“It’s just a matter of him going out there and being a bulldog and battling,” Iowa pitching coach Tom Gorzelanny said. “It’s him knowing that if we get to a chance where the rubber match comes into play after splitting the first two games, we want to have a guy who’s going to go out there and grind to help us win that series. He has the ability and the stuff.”

Iowa faced similar questions at the start of the 2018 season, before Cole McDonald answered them early en route to a strong bounce-back campaign. If Judkins can step in and provide similar consistency, the potential only expands for how far these Hawkeyes can go.

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 msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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