Iowa baseball left processing another late-season stumble after dropping second straight series

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Déjà vu can feature positive and negative reminders, depending on what memory is being replayed. For Iowa baseball and head man Rick Heller, this current feeling of familiarity would like to be forgotten. 

After morphing another slow start into another mid-season surge, the Hawkeyes' 2021 edition tried to write a different ending that didn't include sputters with a postseason berth in sight. All this Iowa bunch did, though, was continue what's now safe to call a troubling trend. 

“We had opportunities and didn’t get the job done," Heller said after Sunday's 8-6 defeat at Northwestern, handing the Hawkeyes back-to-back series losses for the first time this season. "We didn’t execute at times that hurt us."    

For the third time in the last three full seasons, Iowa baseball has seen postseason buzz dwindle away with late stumbles.

Despite spending most of May on the bubble's right side, Iowa (23-18) now needs a minor miracle to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 2017. The Hawkeyes began last weekend tied for fourth in the Big Ten standings with momentum brewing. Now, after dropping four of six against pedestrian Illinois (21-20) and lowly Northwestern (14-19), Iowa will trudge into its final regular-season weekend at Michigan State likely needing a sweep and help to avoid a fifth-place finish. 

This stumbling stretch is only magnified given what occurred in 2018 and 2019. Assuming this season doesn't include a surprise narrative-shifting result on Selection Monday next week, the Hawkeyes will now have more near postseason misses than regional appearances under Heller. 

It's notable how alike these seasons are.

In 2018, after toppling Oklahoma State on May's first weekend 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 secured. 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, 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.

The 2021 details feel similar in recent weeks. After winning six of seven series to revive a floundering campaign, the Hawkeyes cracked D1Baseball's bracketology for the first time on April 20 — the first of four straight projections that included Iowa. With four weekends remaining against no one with a winning record, the path for a regional return had opened up again

All the cliché boxes appeared to be checked. Iowa players projected a grounded tone in postgame interviews and didn't seem to heighten the self pressure as the season intensified.

Even in a year where the RPI isn't nearly as valuable when analyzing the Big Ten's conference-only slate, Iowa still managed to drop from 55th on May 13 to 89th on Monday morning. That slide sent the Hawkeyes from the league's best RPI to fourth, ahead of a weekend that's likely to see Iowa fall even further just by facing Michigan State (17-24).

"You don't want to be a team that's known for not playing well in May," Baseball America analyst Teddy Cahill told HawkCentral earlier this month. "You want to be a team that plays well in May so that you peak at the right time and you're cresting going into the tournament. You don't want the opposite of that. You don't want Hellerball to be associated with poor May performances, in addition to all the great things it's associated with." 

Rick Heller has rejuvenated Iowa baseball, but that's now three seasons with late collapses when postseason buzz was building.

Scuffling like this doesn't boil down to one glaring problem; a multitude of issues usually is the culprit. For one, the Hawkeyes never found a second reliable weekend arm behind their Friday ace. In the four games not started by Trenton Wallace the last two weekends, pitchers Duncan Davitt and Cam Baumann combined to surrender 17 runs in 15 2/3 innings. That's a 9.77 ERA for those scoring at home. Iowa unsurprisingly went 0-4 in those contests.

The bats have had stretches of inconsistency as well. After scoring three runs in the eighth inning for a Friday rally over Illinois, the Hawkeyes had just three more runs the rest of the weekend. Those struggles spilled into the Northwestern trip, where Iowa left 30 runners on base in three games. That's crippling in a series that included a one-run loss and a two-run walk-off stunner.       

The Iowa players knew what was on the line, the coaches too. With 18 members left over from the 2019 team, eight of whom were also on the 2018 squad, there wasn't a need to re-stress the importance of playing quality baseball late. Iowa’s future was clear — if it took care of business or if it didn't.

Here the Hawkeyes are, trying to process another untimely batch of futility. 

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.