Iowa baseball: Hawkeyes need strong series finale after falling hard to Illinois in Game 2

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central
After dropping Saturday's contest to Illinois, Iowa will need a big Sunday showing for a series win over the Fighting Illini.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — If there was any thought Friday's eighth-inning rally would ignite a cruise-control weekend for Rick Heller's Hawkeyes, Illinois disrupted that plan rather rudely. 

With Iowa starter Duncan Davitt looking to continue his nice run of recent success, the Fighting Illini tore up the Indianola product Saturday with one emphatic frame. Illinois' six-run third jumpstarted a 14-1 runaway win at Duane Banks Field, setting up a crucial series finale at 1:05 p.m. Sunday afternoon. 

“This isn’t going to define the rest of our season,” senior catcher Austin Martin said. “I can promise you that.”

Iowa (22-15) likely needs three more winning weekends to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 2017. A quality performance Saturday could've propelled the Hawkeyes a step further toward that coveted goal; instead, Heller was left shuffling through ineffective pitchers as the scoreboard worsened. 

Davitt absorbed the most pivotal blows, surrendering four hits, seven runs and three walks through 2 2/3 long innings. Eight of the 16 batters he faced reached safely, including the first four in Illinois' back-breaking third.

Davitt had the damage limited to just two runs in the inning when he struck out Cam McDonald for the second out. But the next wave was just commencing. Davitt then issued a bases-loaded walk and two-run single to Jacob Campbell — giving Illinois (17-19) a 6-0 advantage — before Heller begrudgingly trotted to the center of the diamond. 

A slew of relievers didn't fare much better. Jacob Henderson served up a single, a wild pitch and another walk before finally escaping the third. Freshman Will Semb did toss three scoreless innings, but that positive note was soon buried after Iowa needed four pitchers to get three outs in a grotesque seventh. The five-run frame included four consecutive walks and just two Illini hits.   

Illinois' hurlers didn't get the messy message. The Hawkeyes mustered just three hits and one run off Illini starter Nathan Lavender, who punched out 13 over six robust frames. Iowa was even quieter versus reliever Ryan Kutt, who tossed three perfect innings.

“It was a tough day for us all the way around,” Heller said. “... We had way too many free bases and punched out a ton. It is just one, but we have to learn from it.”

A souring performance, no doubt, but one Iowa needs to shed quickly before Sunday's pivotal rubber match. Southpaw Cam Baumann gets the call as the Hawkeyes look to make it seven of eight winning weekends. This one might be the most important given where Iowa's postseason case currently rests

Mental stability has buoyed Iowa's 2021 resurgence more than anything. The Hawkeyes will need plenty of it come Sunday to erase Saturday's pain.

“We have a rule — when the sun comes up, it’s over,” Heller said. “It hurts a little bit until the sun comes up, but we’ll regroup and hopefully play well on Senior Day.”

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.