Chris Whelan: Focus still there for stretch run despite Sunday loss to UC Irvine Hawk Central
IOWA CITY, Ia. — If anyone considered excessive celebration following another big series win, Sunday’s affair rudely reminded Iowa that nothing is solidified. The Hawkeyes’ margin for error remains razor thin.
In position to sweep for a third straight weekend, Iowa mustered another series-finale flop. This one was uglier than the previous two, though, as UC Irvine smothered the Hawkeyes with a nine-run fifth en route to a 15-4 victory at Duane Banks Field.
"It's been kind of an unfortunate trend the last few weeks," senior Chris Whelan said, "where you take two on Friday and Saturday and lay an egg on Sunday. But I think the biggest thing is to not forget what we did here and what we've done the last six weeks."
Iowa (29-17) leaves its brief non-conference dip with positive marks, after shaving off some RPI points while adding to its postseason resume with a fourth quality series win. But a sweep would’ve created more breathing room as the Hawkeyes ready for a slew of RPI landmines.
That wasn’t happening on Irvine’s watch. Although closer-turned-starter Taylor Rashi yielded his first run of the season on Ben Norman’s first-inning double, Iowa’s arms collapsed in emphatic fashion. The Anteaters (29-13) knocked starter Grant Judkins out after four innings, then tore up the Hawkeye bullpen.
Iowa needed three relievers to get three outs in the back-breaking fifth. Two of those pitchers didn’t retire a batter. Overall, nine consecutive Irvine hitters reached safely to begin the frame. Mikey Filia’s three-run blast off the batter’s eye was the crown jewel.
Rick Heller: Not a good day on the mound as Iowa falls to UC Irvine in finale Hawk Central
The order of events can skew the optics just a bit. The Hawkeyes needed to win the Irvine series — and they did — but ending a third straight weekend with disappointment will sting to some degree. Iowa can use as much wiggle room as possible with the RPI, and a sweep Sunday would’ve bought the Hawkeyes some serious insurance.
"It wasn't very good today. Everybody knows it. We don't need to belabor it," Iowa coach Rick Heller said. "Wipe it away, have a good week of finals and get ready for Michigan State.
"That's all you can do, and that's all we talk about from day one. It's something that's instilled in them. There is no shot at a regional if we don't play well. Just being realistic, we have to play well against anybody."
Still, Iowa has all its goals and aspirations in front of them. The Hawkeyes’ RPI briefly dipped inside the top-50 after Saturday’s win — likely good enough for an at-large bid, considering what else is on Iowa’s resume. That figure will drop some with Sunday’s loss, but not significantly.
What’s up next is where the margin for error tightens: A three-game home series against Michigan State (179 RPI) and a May 14 game at Western Illinois (237 RPI) will make it difficult for Iowa to keep its RPI stabilized, even with four wins. A loss in that stretch is non-negotiable.
The Hawkeyes end the regular season with three at Maryland (84 RPI), which likely needs to be a series win. If Iowa finishes 6-1, it likely won’t need to do something crazy in the Big Ten Tournament to secure a regional spot.
"Everybody just knows what we need to do without even being told, especially with how to approach games each weekend," Whelan said. "We never try to look past the next opponent. A lot of teams try to focus on future stuff, as opposed to what's in front of them.
"I don't see that with this team at all."
Many of these Hawkeyes don’t need an introduction on finishing the job. One year ago to the weekend, Iowa took two of three from ranked Oklahoma State and seemingly had a postseason spot locked up. But a series loss to a pedestrian Northwestern team followed, wrecking the Hawkeyes’ RPI. They couldn’t recover in time.
Sunday’s loss is perhaps a perfectly timed reminder that everything is in limbo until Selection Monday. Iowa should leave the Irvine series with confidence — but not without a sense of urgency for what’s ahead.
"We've got our foot on the gas pedal," freshman Brendan Sher said. "There's no letting up."
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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.