Iowa baseball: Hawkeyes' postseason future much murkier after dropping Illinois series
IOWA CITY, Ia. — The gaudy figure popped off the Duane Banks Field scoreboard as if it were out of place. And it was, given how normal everything else looked. But this was no misprint.
Sixteen hits. Sixteen Illinois hits.
All of them may have whacked Iowa out of the postseason picture.
Needing a clutch Sunday showing to snag a pivotal weekend win, the Hawkeyes watched helplessly as the Fighting Illini knocked starter Cam Baumann around and sunk teeth into the Iowa bullpen as well. The final result was a 6-2 Illinois win, handing Iowa (22-16) its first series home loss since late March.
Now, after a month-plus of winning baseball, the Hawkeyes are slipping closer to the bubble's edge with two weekends remaining. It was believed that if Iowa won its final three series starting with the Illinois slate, the Hawkeyes would be dancing for the first time since 2017. That didn't happen. Iowa's postseason future has become much murkier as a result.
Each player donning the Sunday golds knew that when the weekend finale commenced. It didn't need to be said or overemphasized. The consequences for a lackluster performance, though, still hit all the same.
"What our staff has tried to do the last two days is not focus on anything other than what we normally talk about. But internally, (the players) know what's going on (with the postseason)," Iowa coach Rick Heller said. "No matter how old you are, it's a challenge and a mental game to not let yourself start to press. That's human nature.
"I felt a little bit of pressing about the sixth, seventh inning just because it wasn't happening. That's was our talk before the game; with baseball, the worst thing you can do is try harder."
There was brief life in the third, after Izaya Fullard's bloop two-out single brought home two to pull even, 2-2. Iowa had absorbed Illinois' early punch and seemed ready to roll. The inning caught another wave after two walks loaded the bases for Zeb Adreon.
The Iowa senior, one of 14 honored pregame in a Senior Day ceremony, crushed one to the warning track in left, briefly bringing a solid Iowa contingency to its feet. But left-fielder Nathan Aide corralled the grand-slam effort, and Illinois (18-19) was off again.
"They came out and beat us today fair and square," redshirt junior Trenton Wallace said. "They put it to us the last two days."
The Illini knocked Baumann out with a four-run fifth, the sizable blow coming on Ryan Hampe's two-run homer. The Fairfield product lasted just 4 1/3 innings, serving up 11 hits and four runs on 83 pitches. Nine of those knocks off Baumann were singles, but still too many to avoid significant damage.
Iowa never made a serious dent on the other end, either. Aside from Fullard's knock, the Hawkeyes had just four additional hits with only two arriving after the third inning.
"For whatever reason (the last two days)," Heller said, "our bats just suddenly went cold."
Iowa's updated outlook carries a similar frigid theme.
The Hawkeyes have three games left at Northwestern (although the Wildcats dealt with COVID issues this past weekend) and three more at Michigan State. With Maryland sweeping Purdue, Iowa now sits fifth in the Big Ten standings — two games out of fourth, three games out of third and four games behind new leader Nebraska.
Regroup is all Iowa can do. Whether or not it's too late for a regional return may now be out of the Hawkeyes' hands.
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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.