Iowa baseball: Amid mid-season surge, Hawkeyes can't lose focus as postseason chatter intensifies
IOWA CITY, Ia. —College baseball's postseason chatter isn't as loud as its basketball counterpart, which has countless bracketologies released regularly months before the NCAA Tournament. But there's enough noise for those on the diamond to find if not careful.
Regional discussions, hosting projections, bubble talk — all of it ramps up significantly as the calendar flips from April to May. They're noteworthy to a certain extent, given how few outlets actually release trusted baseball bracketologies. But this sport can shift season narratives quicker than most if a team's focus isn't locked on the right elements.
Iowa (18-11) finds itself in such a position after five straight winning weekends. Following Brett McCleary's dramatic walkoff homer Monday afternoon against Northwestern, the Hawkeyes are 14-3 over their last 17 games. A sputtering start has morphed into a mid-season surge, and Iowa is being rightfully awarded with budding regional buzz.
Baseball America and D1Baseball, the leaders in postseason prognostications, included the Hawkeyes in last week's field and will almost certainly do so again this week. Iowa now sits fourth in the Big Ten standings — three games out of first and two games clear of fifth — with five three-game series remaining.
Given what's unfolded and what's left, it'd be easy to start penciling in Iowa for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2017. After this weekend's trip to Indiana, the Hawkeyes' final 12 games come against teams currently a combined 19 games under .500. A closing stretch against Illinois, Penn State, Northwestern and Michigan State offers a red-carpet waltz to the regionals.
But these Hawkeyes know it's not that simple.
"It's one game at a time, one series at a time," senior Ben Norman said. "We've just got to keep playing our game."
It's a grizzled group with an experienced coach, featuring several players who've been in this position before. You want that NCAA Tournament talk, sure. It beats apathetic assessments of a floundering squad. But just because the postseason lights are seemingly guiding Iowa in for a smooth landing, that doesn't mean turbulence can't take over in a moment's notice.
A peek back at the last two complete campaigns reveals just that. Eighteen current Hawkeyes were on the 2019 team, including eight who were also on the 2018 roster. That's more than enough veteran voices to adequately address any wandering thoughts.
In 2018, after taking two of three from Oklahoma State (May 4-6) for its third ranked series win, Iowa was included in a fifth straight field-of-64 projection from D1Baseball. An at-large bid was all but wrapped up. All that remained were series against lowly Northwestern and Penn State, as well as a midweek contest at Western Illinois. Iowa didn't finish the job. The Hawkeyes lost two of three to the Wildcats and followed with a Big Ten Tournament dud. Their RPI tumbled more than 20 spots in three weeks.
One year later produced an almost identical finish. An early-May series win over college baseball powerhouse UC Irvine gave Iowa 18 victories in its previous 25 games. The Hawkeyes had six consecutive winning weekends and finally cracked back-to-back D1Baseball projections, eyes again on another NCAA Tournament. All that buzz was short-lived, though, as Iowa dropped a crushing home set to Michigan State and were swept at Maryland to end the regular season. The Hawkeyes' RPI plummeted from 49th to 102nd in less than three weeks.
"I've been a part of some really good teams here, but we've missed some opportunities late and missed the postseason a couple times," said McCleary, one of those eight current Hawkeyes who experienced the 2018 and 2019 pain. "But that's not something we can focus on. Each day is our challenge for the day, and if we take advantage of that, the chips will be where they are."
RPI analysis isn't as crucial in 2021 with the Big Ten playing a conference-only schedule, but that hardly decreases the significance of each remaining game. The league standings will be as important as ever in the NCAA committee's selection process. And with no mid-week games to iron out issues, problems must be corrected in the thick of weekend action.
For now, Iowa seems to have the correct mindset — enjoy moments like Monday in the present before clearing the state for the next challenge ahead. As much as the Hawkeyes have corrected their pedestrian start, this season's final narrative will be shaped in the month ahead.
"As we head down the stretch, you want to be playing your best baseball in May heading into the postseason," Iowa coach Rick Heller said. "As we get into the latter part of our schedule, we need to clean some things up
"... When it's all league games, every weekend takes a toll. It's stressful because every team you play is good. We'll just go to work on trying to get better."
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.