Iowa baseball: Hawkeyes cough up Illinois series with another bullpen collapse

Dargan Southard
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Early in conference play isn't the proper time for any season-defining declarations, both good or bad. There's too much action left in this college baseball season to know if one weekend will ultimately mean more than another. There's no need to stack unnecessary emotional weight on an early April slate.  

That said, there's little doubt Iowa will exit this Illinois series feeling like it left plenty on the table. Less than 24 hours after coming one strike away from a doubleheader sweep and weekend win, the Hawkeyes are left wondering how long this painful stumble will reverberate.

Sunday's finale — a 9-5 Illinois win at Duane Banks Field — mirrored Saturday's collapse in a lot of ways. The Hawkeyes (16-12, 3-3 Big Ten Conference) again led early and were cruising behind another quality start, only to have Illinois (15-14, 7-2) disrupt things with plenty of late action. After allowing six runs from the seventh inning on in Saturday's nightcap, Iowa served up another six Sunday in the same timeframe. The backend of the Hawkeyes' bullpen again cratered in the worst spot possible. 

There were signs this could be a riveting Iowa rally after the Hawkeyes plated two in the bottom of the seventh to pull back even, 4-4. But the ninth was nothing short of disastrous. The Hawkeyes required four pitchers to get three outs, with Illinois plating five in between despite just two balls leaving the infield. Five walks in the frame, including two with the bases loaded, saw Iowa sputter to the finish.

Sunday, it was Luke Llewellyn, Will Christopherson, Casey Day and Jacob Henderson who slogged through the game-changing ninth. But just about every meaningful Iowa reliever suffered at some point during the week. The Hawkeyes surrendered 15 runs from the seventh inning on during the week and, in hindsight, were lucky to escape with a 2-2 ledger.     

After moving Dylan Nedved — Iowa's strongest relief arm — to the weekend rotation in mid-March, coach Rick Heller believed he had enough depth to cover the shift on the backend. That had proved true, until the weekend.      

Now, Iowa has plenty of questions to answer at the end of games and not much time to find them. It's on the Hawkeyes to decide whether the weekend is the beginning of something sour or just a minor speed bump in a long season.  

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.