OMAHA, Neb. — Waves of passion poured from the man on the mound, understandable for a guy trying to keep his collegiate career afloat. Don’t mess with a senior pitcher on his last leg. Indiana learned the hard way.
Iowa needed Cole McDonald sharp and refined if it was to make any Omaha noise. The Big Ten Tournament may have begun on a Wednesday — but the Hawkeyes veteran ace turned in a Friday night-like performance.
McDonald twirled eight innings of one-run ball, mowing down a strikeout-prone Indiana lineup for the second time this season. The forceful effort gave Iowa’s offense time to pounce. The Hawkeyes did, upsetting conference champ Indiana, 4-2, at TD Ameritrade Park.
Eighth-seed Iowa (31-22) will face Nebraska at 9 p.m. Thursday. The Huskers throttled Minnesota in the final first-round game.
After sputtering to the regular-season finish line, Iowa entered Omaha in desperate search of a reset. No player needed one more than McDonald. Back-to-back pedestrian starts stained what has otherwise been a strong senior year.
"Cole stepped out and just said, 'I'm going to stop this tonight,'" Iowa coach Rick Heller said. "That's what we needed more than anything — someone to step up — and then everyone on the team saw that. The feelings came back of when things were going well."
Postseason ball looked good on McDonald. Emphatic yells and emotional fist pumps followed almost every scoreless frame. The New Hampton product surrendered just five hits with nine strikeouts — two off his career-high set on March 22 in Bloomington.
Indiana (36-20) struck on Matt Gorski’s RBI single in the sixth, but McDonald slammed the door on all other scoring chances. Two big double plays — a 6-4-3 variety to end the sixth-inning threat and a 4-6-3 turn to close the seventh — kept the Hoosiers quiet.
"Playing Indiana, I was really happy because I knew I had the stuff to get these guys out," McDonald said. "I just wanted to get back on track."
Pauly Milto matched McDonald’s prowess, until Iowa finally broke through with a keep-the-line-moving seventh. Two singles sandwiched around a sacrifice bunt tied the score, as Rick Heller gambled by sending Ben Norman on Tanner Wetrich’s bloop to left. The risk paid off after catcher Ryan Fineman dropped a perfect throw.
A Mitchell Boe walk and a Justin Jenkins single loaded the bases for Chris Whelan, who gave Iowa the lead with a sacrifice fly. Izaya Fullard made it a three-run frame with a run-scoring single. Additional cushion came with an unearned run in the eighth.
"Everybody can probably hit the big hit, but with that mentality, you're probably going to end up out. Biggest thing in a close ballgame is just get the next guy up," said Jenkins, who delivered the first three-hit game of his Iowa career. "That's just what I try to do when I'm up there."
McDonald turned the keys over to Grant Leonard, who gave up a run but converted his 14th save to set the program’s season record. McDonald, pumped and beaming, was one of the first out to greet him.
The Hawkeyes hurdled the first obstacle in what it hopes is a long Omaha stay, returning to form that led Iowa into regional conversations just a few weeks ago. On a day where the lower seeds ruled, the Hawkeyes made sure to get in on the action.
They can thank McDonald for the timely effort.
"The one versus the eight seed, we're looked at as the underdog. None of us up here or on our team think we're an eight seed. We know we're a lot better than that," McDonald said. "Just seeing all the Hawk fans in the stands was absolutely amazing. Their support all night long was awesome.
"They gave me energy to just go out there and throw strikes and give it my best shot. It just fired me up more."
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.