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Rick Heller on third paid assistant not passing: Disappointing for all baseball people Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — This season has required more tinkering than previous years, but Rick Heller has pieced together a working solution that has Iowa again within reach of a postseason spot.

There’s plenty of work left for the Hawkeyes, which are seeking their third regional berth in the last five seasons. But opportunity awaits in the final month. It starts this weekend, as Iowa (27-16, 11-7 Big Ten Conference) hosts No. 25 UC Irvine (28-11) in what is its most pivotal series of the year.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Hawkeyes sit fourth in the Big Ten standings with a 60 RPI. That figure has dropped considerably over the past few weekends, but Iowa still needs to lower its RPI a bit to climb into at-large contention.

If it can, the rest of the Hawkeyes’ resume should look favorable.

Given what’s ahead, the Irvine series is Iowa’s last real chance to add substance to its case before the Big Ten Tournament. The Hawkeyes finish with three against Michigan State (182 RPI), a midweek game at Western Illinois (265 RPI) and three at Maryland (83 RPI).

Two publications — Baseball American and D1Baseball.com — have put out regional projections each week since early April. Their latest both have Iowa firmly on the bubble — one on the right side, one on the wrong. Baseball America has Iowa as the second team out. D1Baseball has Heller’s squad as the last team in, heading to UCLA as a No. 3 seed.

HawkCentral chatted with Baseball America’s Teddy Cahill and D1Baseball’s Aaron Fitt to get a better read on where Iowa stands and what remaining work it has.      

 

Iowa's resume

In addition to its RPI and Big Ten placement, Iowa has a strength of schedule at 102, a nonconference strength of schedule at 173 and is 8-8 versus the top 50 RPI. Buoying the Hawkeyes’ resume are three solid series wins — at Oklahoma State (24 RPI), a sweep against Illinois (21 RPI) and two of three versus Nebraska (38 RPI).

Fitt: "It’s a neat resume. We like their case better than other teams with better RPIs, just because they have some really nice quality series wins. Those are three nice series wins that a lot of bubble teams can’t really match.

"I think that overcomes that the RPI is outside where it typically needs to be. We have seen teams around 61, 62, 63, 64 get in before, but not very often. Usually, in the Big Ten with that kind of RPI, you’re not going to get in — and that’s why they’re on the bubble. But I like where they’re sitting in the conference standings. I like the high-end wins, and if they can get that RPI back into the 50s — and maybe even inside the top 50 — you feel pretty good then. But at least into the 50s, I think they need to do that."

Cahill: "The RPI is definitely the biggest ding. I think if it was 15 points higher, they would’ve been in the field and potentially would’ve not been one of the last four teams in. Their overall record is not overly impressive — it’s not problematic — but it’s not that great right now. So I think that plus the RPI together kind of obscures the fact you have this Oklahoma State (series) win and they’re fourth in the Big Ten.

“… I also look at Opening Day against George Mason. Their RPI is (near) 250 right now. Then, at least that was on the road, but don’t lose two games at Hawaii. Those three losses in the first two weeks to 200-RPI teams, that is probably as much of a missed opportunity as the Evansville series, Illinois State and that other Bradley game.

"It’s hard to say playing four games at Hawaii would lead to RPI landmines, but that’s kind of what happened here. It’s just really hard to fault anyone for that happening. When you don’t have as many opportunities just based on geography to correct for these later, they all end up mattering a lot.”

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The Irvine series

Irvine comes to Iowa City with a 53 RPI and one of the nation’s best rotations. The Anteaters have been a projected regional team for several weeks. Starters Trenton Denholm, Tanner Brubaker and Andre Pallante all have ERAs under 2.70. Fitt believes this a must-win series for Iowa.

Fitt: “I think it probably is a must-win, honestly. They’re going to lose RPI points when they play Michigan State and Western Illinois four straight games. It’s just the reality, so there’s not a lot of margin for error here. I really think this is a very important weekend.”

Cahill: "If you can find a way to solve the pitching, you can win these games because Irvine isn’t necessarily going to be able to match up with you offensively. But if they are able to keep it a low-scoring affair, the Anteaters are just really tough to beat this year."

 

Looking ahead

Iowa’s final two Big Ten series aren’t as glamorous as the Irvine affair, but the Hawkeyes can’t slip against Michigan State or Maryland. Poor showings there will quickly undo any RPI headway made this weekend.

Fitt: "I don’t think they need to get into the top 45 to get in with their resume. Top 50 would certainly help, but I think in the 50s somewhere gives them a chance. To do that, they probably need to win eight or nine at minimum. They have a nice body of work to this point, but just because of the RPI reality, they still do need to finish strong. There’s no question about it."

Cahill: "I hate ever saying that you have to sweep a series, but they need to sweep the Spartans. Obviously, they need to win at Western Illinois. And then at Maryland, I think that’s just a win-the-series situation. It’s on the road, and Maryland’s probably going to finish inside the top-100 RPI. At that point, if we’re talking about going 5-1 down the stretch in the Big Ten, you’re 16-8. That’s a really good mark that’s going to keep you near the top of the Big Ten standings.

"If you can say, ‘Hey, we finished third in the Big Ten’ and then you have an RPI that’s pretty reasonable, I think that’s going to be looked upon very favorably. Just being able to have that high conference finish is something that often does get looked at, even in a league that has as unbalanced scheduling as the Big Ten does."

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The bottom line

Given the abundance of preseason question marks, taking this Iowa team to the postseason would, perhaps, be Heller’s most impressive effort in Iowa City. Fitt added that Heller will have a solid shot at Big Ten coach of the year and possibly national coach of the year.

That is, if Iowa takes care of business in this final push.   

Fitt: "You’re getting to the point where you start giving them the benefit of the doubt. If they’re close, it feels like they’re going to have a pretty good shot. Heller coaches them up, and this is one of his best coaching jobs."

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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