IOWA CITY, Ia. — On a flawless afternoon with temperatures pushing 85 degrees, baseball normalcy was restored at Duane Banks Field. Saturday’s absurdity was too much to be replicated.
Following two strong showings against its western neighbor, Iowa entered the Nebraska finale eyeing an emphatic sweep. It had to settle for a series victory after the Huskers swiped Sunday’s showdown before heading home.
Two late defensive miscues cracked the door for Nebraska — and it pounced for just enough before holding off the Hawkeyes’ rally. Iowa came up just short, 3-2, in front of 1,264.
It was already a successful weekend for the Hawkeyes (23-15, 9-6 Big Ten Conference) after toppling Nebraska on Friday and Saturday, but Iowa wanted to get greedy. A sweep would’ve chiseled the Hawkeyes’ RPI down even more. There were certainly chances to make it happen.
“Just disappointing that we had an opportunity to really make a big statement,” Iowa coach Rick Heller said. “Still a good weekend, but not getting a sweep when it’s right there at your fingertips hurts a little bit. And it should.”
Trailing 1-0 in the seventh, Iowa couldn’t clamp all the way down to prevent further damage. Nebraska (22-13, 11-4) put up two in the frame buoyed by two Hawkeye errors — a rarity in Iowa City.
Grant Judkins was brilliant all day, but his dropped popup inadvertently ignited a Husker surge. A single followed and put men on the corners with one down. Luke Roskam then roped one to second baseman Mitchell Boe, who tried to turn two but threw it into left field. Two Huskers scored on the play.
On a day where barreled balls found gloves and the whipping wind only offered little assistance, Iowa couldn’t dig out of a 3-0 hole.
“They were able to just put a few in play and get a few runs in,” said Judkins, who otherwise was solid, surrendering just three hits and one earned run over seven innings.
“Hats off to them.”
Iowa tried to claw back, slicing two off the deficit on Connor McCaffery’s solo homer in the seventh and Izaya Fullard’s RBI single in the eighth. But the Hawkeyes left the tying run at third before heading to the ninth. Their last three outs came without incident.
Iowa’s jovial mood following Saturday’s eruption died down a bit Sunday. In a way, that should keep the Hawkeyes’ focus sharp as they navigate the final 16 regular-season games. As positive as this weekend was for Heller’s bunch, there is still plenty of baseball left to elevate or deteriorate this season.
“Everyone is pulling the same direction, and it’s going well, Boe said. Since opening weekend of Big Ten, we’ve played our butts off — and it’s going to keep going that way. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing best.”
As important as this series was, Iowa’s remaining games are no less pivotal. The Hawkeyes’ next six games — midweeks against Milwaukee, Western Illinois and Northwestern sandwiched around three at Ohio State — are RPI landmines. Iowa must conquer those before it gets its next marquee challenge against UC Irvine in two weeks.
After last season’s late sputter, Heller knows he doesn’t have to address the importance of finishing. The Hawkeyes came up short in that regard Sunday — but opportunity awaits in the coming month.
“With the guys we have in the clubhouse who’ve been down the road before, that’s not an issue,” Heller said. “We’re going to go out and give a good effort. We’re going to play hard and continue to work in practice to get better. That’s just what we do.
“Every team in this league is capable of winning. You have to play really well and catch some breaks even when you do play well to win. Our guys also know that. They know going into each game that we have to play our best.”
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.