Emphatic fifth inning propels Iowa to 17-9 rout, series win over Nebraska
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The bottom of the fifth began innocently enough, as the first two Hawkeyes shuffled back to the dugout without much to show. After coughing up a two-run lead in the top half, Iowa had little juice. There were certainly no signs of eruption.
Baseball is funny, though — often a magnet for the illogical. What came next was downright absurd.
Eleven straight Hawkeyes reached safely with two outs in the fifth, including eight that scored. Iowa bullied three different Nebraska pitchers in the frame and turned a back-and-forth affair into a runaway trouncing.
When it finally ended, the Hawkeyes exited Duane Banks Field Saturday with a 17-9 victory and a crucial series win.
"I liked our approach the last 10 days," Iowa coach Rick Heller said. "It's been getting better, and we've been talking as a group that we felt like we were on the verge of breaking out offensively."
As he’s done often since returning to the leadoff spot, senior Chris Whelan ignited the back-breaking fifth with a simple two-out single to center. Mitchell Boe followed with a plunking off the helmet, and Austin Martin brought home two on a game-tying double. That hit was clutch enough, as it gave Iowa a 5-3 lead after Nebraska pulled even in the top half with two solo homers.
But there was much more.
Izaya Fullard kicked off the inning’s second wave, walloping a 406-foot homer to center that tacked on two more runs. Had the frame stopped there, Iowa (23-14, 9-5 Big Ten Conference) would’ve taken it. The Hawkeyes had rattled the Nebraska bullpen and owned a 7-3 advantage with the late innings looming.
But there was much more.
Four straight knocks followed, two of which were pinch-hit varieties from Zeb Adreon and Connor McCaffery. That stretch plated two more as Iowa officially batted around. Six were in for a 9-3 edge. Good enough — but not done yet.
There was more.
Matthew Sosa roped one to short that Spencer Schwellenbach couldn’t corral, bringing home a 10th run on the fielding error. Up again, Whelan was hit to keep the line moving. Boe then drew a bases-loaded walk, which likely had Nebraska coach Darin Erstad ready to throw something.
"The energy in the dugout was unreal," said Fullard, who finished 2-for-6 with three RBIs. "I was actually talking to one of the Nebraska players. He said he had never seen that before, talking about an eight-run inning with two outs.
"That kind of energy with this team, there's nothing better than that."
Martin’s strikeout as the 14th batter of the inning finally ended the madness. But Nebraska (21-13, 10-4) had been fully zapped from this one. It mustered one run as a counter in the sixth, only to have Iowa dump five more on it in the bottom half.
The Hawkeyes’ final totals were staggering: 16 two-out RBIs, a .565 average with two outs (13-for-23) and a .529 average with runners in scoring position (9-for-17). The 17 runs are the most Iowa’s scored in a Big Ten game since a 17-5 win over Purdue on May 17, 2014.
"We just had a lot of fun today," said Norman, who added a three-run homer in the fourth. "We were focused on just trying to find barrels and get guys on."
The Saturday outburst gave Iowa’s pitching staff a wide margin for error — and Heller took advantage. He got Cam Baumann out after five and needed Trenton Wallace for just one inning. Aside from a brief Kyle Shimp appearance, secondary arms left the bullpen fresh for a shot at a Sunday sweep.
This weekend has done wonders in stabilizing Iowa’s RPI, which jumped 10 spots after Friday’s win and should take another leap before the finale. Busting out the brooms will be a bigger help.
There should be plenty of Iowa momentum now. Saturday’s emphatic fifth inning — and the day as a whole — took care of that.
"Every so often," Heller said, "the stars line up and things like that happen."
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.