Hawkeyes undo recent good work with series loss to Michigan State
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Less than 20 hours after a sour showing in a big spot, Iowa was in no position to get cute. It needed a win Sunday — plain and simple — and didn’t have time to worry about the future.
The Hawkeyes need to worry now.
Another dud, this one featuring a painful bullpen collapse, has Iowa’s postseason chances dangling at best. For as often as the Hawkeyes said this stretch run would look different than last season’s collapse, a repeat now appears imminent.
Michigan State’s five-run seventh off reliever Trace Hoffman buoyed a stunning comeback and a stunning series win. The Spartans walked out of Duane Banks Field with a 7-5 win to spoil Iowa’s Senior Day.
"Had everything right where we wanted it to be. Had our guys in place," Iowa coach Rick Heller said. "Just didn't get it done today."
A second 150-plus RPI loss in as many days will send Iowa’s figure spiraling. The Hawkeyes (30-19, 12-9 Big Ten Conference) chiseled their RPI down significantly with good work in recent weeks, but their small margin for error was no lie. This weekend clunker will emphasize that.
Through six innings, though, there were no signs of a faceplant. Iowa owned a 4-1 lead on RBI knocks from Chris Whelan, Izaya Fullard and Austin Martin. Grant Judkins was back to his old self. All the Hawkeyes needed were nine outs from their usually reliable bullpen.
Hoffman couldn’t stop the bleeding. Michigan State (18-31, 6-13) continued its unprecedented two-out production, throwing up five runs on two singles, a walk, a hit batsman and a back-breaking three-run double from Marty Bechina. The blow marked 13 two-out RBIs for the Spartans this series. Hoffman exited before the inning ended.
"They took advantage of some things and executed," Hoffman said. "That's how they do it, execute well. Tip their cap to them. (The double) was a slider outside. He just put a good swing on it and put it in the gap. Not much you can do."
The backend of Iowa’s bullpen has been decent of late, so it wasn’t out of the ordinary for Heller to lean on Hoffman in the seventh. Judkins, however, had been cruising along beforehand, yielding one earned run with seven strikeouts over six frames. He came out after throwing 85 pitches.
Heller said that decision was largely based on the short week ahead. Iowa's final series at Maryland runs Thursday through Saturday instead of the traditional Friday through Sunday.
"Judkins had worked out of a couple jams, and Trace said he felt great today," Heller said. "We didn't use (Grant) Leonard much (this weekend), so I thought it was a really good plan. Get Trace in the game in a non-stress situation with a three-run lead. And then go to Grant for the eighth and the ninth and let him roll.
"I don't think I ever would've done it differently with the situation we're in, and knowing Judkins has to bounce back on a quick week."
Although there's baseball left on the docket, Iowa has seemingly ran out of gas again late. After a strong non-conference showing last year against Oklahoma State, it was a bad series loss at Northwestern that kept Iowa on the postseason sidelines. Michigan State took the honors this year, erasing the UC Irvine momentum.
Where the Hawkeyes turn from here is cloudy at best
"There are really no other options," Hoffman said, "besides go 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.