Iowa baseball: Hawkeyes open 2021 home slate with 3-0 win over Nebraska
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Even though its presence was simply a temperature tease, the sun shined brightly on Duane Banks Field in what was another step toward normalcy Friday afternoon. Iowa will take anything that resembles a traditional weekend series.
With a friends-and-family crowd bundled up for the first college baseball action in Iowa City since March 11, 2020, the Hawkeyes delivered a clean, welcoming return.
Quality frames from Trenton Wallace paired nicely with one booming inning, as Iowa pushed past Nebraska, 3-0, in the Hawkeyes' 2021 home opener. The win gets Iowa (4-5, 4-5 Big Ten Conference) one back after the Cornhuskers (5-4, 5-4) split two with the Hawkeyes last weekend.
"I knew we were going to be able to get back into our routine this week at home. And then to have an actual home game was just fantastic," said Iowa coach Rick Heller, whose Hawkeyes opened with four against Michigan in Texas and then had four games in Minneapolis last weekend.
"It always feels kind of weird when you haven't been home, and then all of a sudden, you're there. It felt good but a little different. Just having some fans in the stands — even though it wasn't as many as you'd like because today would've been a sellout — but the fans who were here and could come were fantastic."
While Heller still has spots to cement in the weekend rotation, there's been no doubt where Wallace stands in the early going. Iowa needed a Friday ace once Jack Dreyer went down with another season-ending injury. The southpaw from Davenport Assumption answered that call once again against a potent Nebraska lineup.
Wallace scattered just two hits and three walks over seven scoreless innings, sifting through traffic successfully in the first, third and fourth. He ended his day by retiring 11 of the last 12 Nebraska hitters he faced.
"I know I was erratic with my fastball early on," Wallace said, "but trusting the secondary stuff and then I started to throw the fastball with more conviction later in the game. Trusting my defense and making the Nebraska hitters put the ball in play was the biggest key for me."
One jolt is all Iowa needed. The Hawkeyes got two big ones in a momentum-snatching sixth.
After a two-out running grab from Ben Norman in the inning's top half that prevented a Nebraska run, Iowa ran with that juice to take control. Ninth-place hitter Brendan Sher opened the sixth with a wallop off the scoreboard, crushing one high off the LED lights for a solo homer and a 1-0 lead.
Two batters later, after a pinch-hit double from Brayden Frazier, Norman added some clutch insurance with a two-run blast to right-center. Iowa entered the Nebraska opener with just one home run through its first eight games. The Hawkeyes tripled that figure in a span of three batters.
"We knew it was going to be a close ballgame," Norman said. "Whomever had that one explosive inning was most likely going to have a chance to win there. It was huge to get those runs up in that inning."
Trusted bullpen arm Trace Hoffman took his cue from there with two scoreless frames, securing his first save of the season. Roughly 22 excruciating months after its last home Big Ten series — May 10-12, 2019, against Michigan State — Iowa was again celebrating a league win on the Duane Banks Field turf.
As society searches for a light at the end of this COVID-19 tunnel, Friday's sights and sounds at least offered a taste of what's hopefully ahead.
"It's been a weird year," Heller said, "not playing the first two weeks and then the (COVID-19) shutdown. Then we had to play a (four-game) series Saturday, Sunday, Monday to open up with Michigan, which gave us a short week going up to Minneapolis (last weekend).
"Having a full week at home and then having the home series, it was really big for us."
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.