OMAHA, Neb. — Rick Heller paced around the dugout steps, still debating if he really wanted to pull the plug so soon. This was code-red against a soaring Nebraska squad. Iowa’s bullpen isn’t built to handle lengthy demands.
Grant Judkins gave his head coach no choice.
So with just four outs recorded and his starter’s pitch count already over 50, Heller begrudgingly made a slow trot to the center of the diamond. What unfolded next has the Hawkeyes’ season sputtering for life.
Judkins lasted only 1⅓ frames Friday against Nebraska, sticking Iowa in a hefty Big Ten Tournament hole. The Cornhuskers pounced for an 11-1, eight-inning, run-rule win at TD Ameritrade Park. Now, the No. 8 seed Hawkeyes must beat Minnesota on Friday night and Ohio State twice on Saturday to reach Sunday’s title game.
"We're playing for our lives now," Heller said.
Although Cole McDonald quashed his late-season struggles with a strong start Wednesday, Judkins couldn’t do the same in a pivotal spot. The difference between winning and losing Friday afternoon was two fewer games en route to Sunday’s championship bout. Nebraska, on the other hand, now needs to beat the Maryland-Michigan winner once in two tries to reach the final.
It didn’t take long to see that Judkins wasn’t sharp. He had full counts on seven of his first 10 batters and needed 24 pitches to slog through a cluttered opening frame. Nebraska eventually knocked Judkins out in the second when four straight hitters reached safely.
"It wasn't the greatest feeling, having to go to the bullpen that early," Heller said. "We felt like Grant was capable of getting deep into the game, and he's been our most consistent guy all season long. Just a bad day for a bad start.
"He's been our No. 3 guy all season long — bumped him up to the No. 2 (here in Omaha) — and maybe that had some effect on it."
Cam Chick’s run-scoring single — one of three RBI hits in the four-run inning — was Judkins’ final action. Iowa’s pitching plan imploded before Friday’s affair ever really got rolling.
A 4-1 deficit only grew, as Nebraska teed off on a cavalcade of Iowa relievers.
Jason Foster had immediate traffic, surrendering two hits and two walks in 1⅔ innings. Southpaw Adam Ketelsen held strong for a frame, then served up four more to the Huskers in a messy fifth. Drew Irvine got knocked around late as well.
"Going to the bullpen that early, we needed someone to step up and shut things down," Heller said. "Then we possibly could've went to (Duncan) Davitt in the fifth and let him roll, if we could've kept the game close.
"But it just didn't work out that way."
Iowa bullpen’s final line: Six innings, 10 hits, seven runs and eight walks. An ineffective effort, but one Judkins ignited by collapsing hard. The Hawkeyes saved some of their better relievers for the nightcap, but it won’t matter if sophomore Cam Baumann matches Judkins with a poor start.
Iowa’s aluminum had nothing for Nate Fisher, either. The Nebraska senior had a weird start last month in Iowa City, retiring the first nine hitters before serving up an eight-run fifth where 11 straight Hawkeyes reached with two outs. Friday’s outing looked more like the first part.
Mitchell Boe’s RBI single in the second gave Iowa a 1-0 lead, but even that threat evaporated after Chris Whelan flew out with the bases loaded. The Hawkeyes had one runner in scoring position the rest of the way.
"We went to Iowa City and they beat us two of three. We were all pretty upset about that," said Nebraska freshman Spencer Schwellenbach, who homered in the fifth and has reached base 12 times in 20 plate appearances against Iowa this season.
"It was just like a big revenge game. We gave all we got and we got them."
Iowa doesn’t have much time to sulk. The Hawkeyes need a swift rebound Friday night if they want to keep this season afloat. The task ahead is daunting after an afternoon flop.
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.