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Iowa baseball: Weekend rotation options have Hawkeyes optimistic about pitching prowess

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Navigating college baseball’s calendar without a cupboard full of arms is a daunting task no coach wants to endure.

Injuries happen, as do surprising struggles, meaning every squad needs a pitching contingency plan that deviates from February optimism. The more seasoned options, the better — especially when postseason aspirations permeate the entire program.

In that regard, Rick Heller feels good.

“Having guys who were injured back, it’s almost like a bonus recruiting class,” Iowa’s baseball coach said Thursday during media day. “So we do have quite a bit of depth.”  

The competition is thickest among potential weekend starters, with as many as seven players battling for those three spots. Just about everyone will have early opportunities to find separation, beginning with the Hawkeyes’ season-opening series next weekend against Kent State, St. Joseph’s and Pittsburgh at the Snowbird Baseball Classic in Florida.    

Iowa pitcher Jack Dreyer poses for a photo during Hawkeye baseball media day, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020, at the University of Iowa Indoor Practice Facility in Iowa City, Iowa.

Solidifying the Friday night starter remains Iowa’s top priority following Cole McDonald’s graduation. That spot has been a springboard for MLB Draft success each of the last three seasons as McDonald, Nick Allgeyer and Nick Gallagher all turned into top 16-round selections.

Johnston product Jack Dreyer will get the first crack after missing nearly all last year with shoulder issues. The 6-foot-2 southpaw got his medical redshirt and is anxious to build off the glimpses of brilliance he showed as a true freshman. In his final three 2018 appearances — all weekend starts — Dreyer yielded just three earned runs over 16 innings.

“He’s in a great spot right now,” Heller said. “I’d tell you it was better than it was at any point prior to this. He’s strong, healthy, confident — he’s pitched really well every time we’ve done our live sets up to this point.

“He’s in a really good place, and we’ll likely give Jack the ball to start the game on Friday (against Kent State). The good thing is we’ve got five or six other guys who are fighting for spots in the rotation.”

That’s where the excitement lies. Behind Dreyer, Iowa can lean on experience with senior Grant Judkins or junior Cam Baumann, who combined 29 starts last season. The Hawkeyes can also roll with promising projects — sophomores Duncan Davitt and Drew Irvine — the latter of whom Heller said has made one of the biggest year-to-year jumps during his tenure.

Beyond that, there are two more pieces back healthy after truncated 2019 campaigns. Junior Trenton Wallace, who’s elbow injury cut short a promising freshman season and mostly limited him to a reliever as a sophomore, is back at full strength. So is redshirt junior Hunter Lee, a Kirkwood transfer who made just two appearances last year before needing surgery.

Sorting this out is going to take a few weekends. You won’t hear any complaints, though, from inside Iowa’s walls.

“It’s been awesome for our team,” said Judkins, who gave up hitting and stayed in town this offseason in preparation for his final year. “It just means we have a lot of depth, a lot of options. Nothing is set in stone, so you’ve just got to go out there and give it your all and hope for the best. Just competing every day, keep working to get better."

For now, Heller and pitching coach Robin Lund will piggyback one starter after another — at least for the opening weekend. Heller laid out a loose blueprint: Dreyer followed by Irvine on Friday, Judkins then Wallace on Saturday, and a Davitt-Lee tandem on Sunday.

Pair that with a veteran bullpen, accentuated by all-American closer Grant Leonard, and the Hawkeyes can rely heavily on their arms until a re-tooling offense catches up. That’s the early gameplan as Iowa readies for five straight weekends on the road to start.

“We know we have a great pitching staff,” second baseman Izaya Fullard said. "If we can just take care of the little things and play hard every day, we’ll have a really good shot of making a regional and hopefully, the College World Series.”

Only four players remain from Iowa’s last postseason appearance: Judkins, Leonard and outfielders Justin Jenkins and Ben Norman. Painful regional misses in 2018 and 2019 blurred what were largely productive campaigns. The urgency for a regional return has grown amid what are already lofty expectations.

It’ll start on the mound if the Hawkeyes are going to generate a better ending.

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.