It’s never too early to start talking about the postseason.
In Big Ten Conference baseball, in which only eight of 13 teams qualify for the league tournament in Omaha, the race is constantly heated. And after a second straight positive weekend in Iowa City, Rick Heller’s Iowa Hawkeyes are trending the right way.
Iowa took two of three games from Rutgers on Friday and Saturday at Duane Banks Field. Add that to an important sweep of an excellent Illinois team the previous weekend, and the Hawkeyes are up to 5-4 (and seventh place) in Big Ten play after an 0-3 start.
In a 24-game Big Ten schedule, every game counts. The Hawkeyes' RPI, according to D1baseball.com, was at 81 through Saturday's games. In other words, their best path to an NCAA regional berth is to win the Big Ten Tournament. But they've got to get there first.
Here’s a quick snapshot of each game from the Rutgers series:
Game 1 (Friday): Iowa 6, Rutgers 1 — Izaya Fullard blasted a three-run homer in a four-run sixth inning that broke open a scoreless tie.
Right-hander Cole McDonald spun 6 1/3 scoreless innings and struck out eight in his best outing of the season to improve to 2-3. McDonald threw a season-high 117 pitches and moved his ERA to a season-low 4.30.
“Cole’s one of our toughest kids, hardest workers and captain,” Heller said. “He’s there for a reason, and that’s what you expect of your Friday night guy.”
Game 2 (Saturday afternoon): Iowa 9, Rutgers 5 — Zeb Adreon went 3-for-3 with four RBIs to power the Hawkeyes to their fifth straight Big Ten win. Mitchell Boe drove in two runs for the second consecutive game.
Cam Baumann pitched 6 1/3 strong innings, and Grant Leonard threw 2 2/3 more to pick up his seventh save.
Game 3 (Saturday night): Rutgers 15, Iowa 3 — The Scarlet Knights scored five unearned runs off Grant Judkins in the first inning and rolled from there.
For the weekend, Rutgers (9-19, 2-4) outhit the Hawkeyes, 36-26.
“It’s always disappointing when you split a doubleheader and lose the back end, especially when you lose it the way we did,” Heller said. “Tip your hat to Rutgers. They bounced back and swung the bats well.”
Overall, Iowa stands 18-12 entering another busy week. The Hawkeyes travel to Bradley for a 7 p.m. Wednesday game before heading to Purdue (10-19, 4-3 entering Sunday) for another Friday-through-Sunday Big Ten series.
Iowa's final four conference series are at home against Nebraska (April 19-21), at Ohio State (April 26-28), at home against Michigan State (May 10-12) and at Maryland (May 16-18). The Big Ten Tournament starts May 22.