Hawkeyes take seesawing series opener against Michigan State

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — As much as stats and records indicate a lopsided on-paper matchup, college baseball doesn’t always work like its sporting counterparts. Tense moments usually fill a series, even sweeps, before a weekend winner emerges.

So it’s no surprise that Iowa’s series opener against lowly Michigan State was no cakewalk.

Fighting for a regional berth in the season’s final leg, the Hawkeyes need the brooms in full force against the Spartans. Iowa cracked the polls this week and is building postseason momentum. Michigan State can only hope to avoid the Big Ten cellar. But none of that mattered Friday.

An early Iowa lead evaporated — its weekend ace wasn’t crisp — and clutch two-out production let Michigan State back in. Only in the game’s back half did the Hawkeyes finally pull away, 7-5, at Duane Banks Field.

"As a coach, you just hope that all the stuff we've worked on all year comes through," Iowa coach Rick Heller said. "I thought our effort was really good. Our dugout was upbeat. Everybody was really positive, and that was start to finish from the time we got to the ballpark today.

"It wasn't the cleanest game for us, but I thought Michigan State played really well. I knew they were going to."   

This series isn’t as glamorous as recent ones against Nebraska and UC Irvine, but Iowa (30-17, 12-7 Big Ten Conference) can’t avoid a letdown against one of the conference’s worst. A pregame RPI check had the Hawkeyes 58th and Michigan State 179th. Anything but three Iowa wins could significantly undo its recent RPI work.

Signs pointed to a Hawkeye rout after Zeb Adreon’s first-inning grand slam gave Iowa a 4-0 lead. But baseball’s way of evening out took over from there. The Hawkeyes were in a dogfight whether they wanted one or not.

"This is a huge series for us to stay at the top of the Big Ten and reach the goals we want to," Adreon said. "Give them credit. After taking a big lead like that early in the game, they fought back. But we stayed with it."   

The Spartans (17-31, 5-13) slowly got to Cole McDonald in his final home start. The senior right-hander wiggled out of a first-inning jam, but had too much early traffic for Michigan State not to pounce. It plated three two-out runs off McDonald over five innings. That marked his shortest outing since March 16.

A strong start on Senior Day weekend would’ve been a nice touch for McDonald, but his bullpen and offense picked up the slack. Back-to-back two-out knocks from Izaya Fullard and Austin Martin were huge boosts in the sixth. That gave Iowa a 6-4 advantage after Michigan State had pulled even in the fifth.

Iowa's Chris Whelan, left, celebrates with teammate Ben Norman after scoring a run during a NCAA Big Ten Conference baseball game, Friday, May 10, 2019, at Duane Banks Field on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City, Iowa.

The trio of Adam Ketelsen, Trace Hoffman and Grant Leonard held the Spartans to one earned run over the final four frames. A diving play from Fullard in the eighth kept the tying run off the board. Leonard recorded four outs for his 13th save, tying a program record.

It wasn’t easy at times. And it shouldn’t have been expected to be. But Iowa survived an eventful opener it had to have.

"As you get down the home stretch when you're trying to do something special that we have the opportunity to do, every game is important," Leonard said. "Even at the bottom of the Big Ten, it's still Big Ten baseball. Every game is going to be gutted out and close."        

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.