Iowa baseball closed the regular season the way it needed. But Hawkeyes can't waste momentum in Omaha.
IOWA CITY — Izaya Fullard is an NCAA bubble veteran at this point, having finished the regular season there in each of his three full Iowa baseball campaigns. This year, however, has one potentially pivotal difference from the previous two.
“We’re playing our best baseball right now,” Fullard said. “In my past, we’ve struggled the last few weeks (of the regular season) — and that wasn’t the case this year.”
Indeed, the third-seeded Hawkeyes (33-17) will trek to Omaha for the Big Ten Tournament having won six consecutive series, with one of Iowa’s most emphatic showings this year coming just one weekend ago.
That’s a stark contrast to how the Hawkeyes finished the 2018, 2019 and 2021 campaigns, all of which saw Iowa drop a series in the final two regular-season weekends to a team that didn’t finish over .500 that year. That late futility didn’t change much in the Big Ten Tournament those years. Rick Heller’s Hawkeyes watched those three NCAA Tournaments from home.
Iowa is desperately hoping to avoid a repeat scenario in 2022. With no glaring May stumbles to account for (other than a midweek loss to Illinois State early in the month), the Hawkeyes believe they’re entering this Big Ten Tournament with a strong, repeatable product. Iowa’s postseason journey begins at 9 a.m. Thursday against No. 6 seed Penn State (25-27) inside the same stadium with a new name: Charles Schwab Field Omaha.
“From our point of view, it’s pretty simple,” Heller said. "The only way to guarantee yourself a shot at the NCAA Tournament is to win the (Big Ten) Tournament. And then you increase your odds with each time you’re able to find a way to win a game. So the goal’s pretty simple.
“I just hope we can take the momentum that we have and go over there and continue to play like we have been for the last couple months.”
Iowa is about as squarely on the bubble as a team can get. D1Baseball’s Sunday projection had the Hawkeyes as the first team out, while Baseball America’s Tuesday projection has Heller’s bunch as the third-to-last team in — earning a No. 3 seed in the Notre Dame regional. If Iowa needs to take the at-large route to the NCAA Tournament, a path there could go like this:
A win Wednesday is pretty much non-negotiable. The Hawkeyes’ 58 RPI can’t withstand a Penn State hit, considering the Nittany Lions are currently roaming in the RPI’s high 140s.
Unless something bizarre happens after a hypothetical Wednesday loss, Iowa would need the automatic bid at that point — and getting it through the loser’s bracket is never an ideal situation.
Topple the Nittany Lions and a Thursday date with Rutgers likely awaits, assuming the Scarlet Knights can avoid a Purdue upset in the opening round. Iowa should enter that affair with confidence, considering it won a series in New Jersey this season and would likely start Dylan Nedved coming off his strongest outing of the year. Across two appearances in the late-April Rutgers series, Nedved allowed five hits and three runs over five innings.
Assuming Rutgers’ RPI stays around the 40 spot it’s presently at, the Hawkeyes will have secured their fourth top-50 RPI victory this season just a few days before the all-important Selection Monday. Would that be enough, even if the Hawkeyes were beaten twice by whichever team emerges from the loser’s bracket on the other side? It’s possible — but reaching the title game at that point should be done just to be safe.
Lose to Rutgers, however, and things get mighty dicey. The Hawkeyes would then have to beat the Penn State-Purdue winner — which wouldn’t do much for the RPI — before likely needing to beat regular-season champion Maryland twice to reach the championship game. One win over the potential national seed Terrapins might be enough to offset the Rutgers loss, but that scenario would put Iowa’s fate squarely in the committee’s hands. And the track record there isn’t great for Big Ten squads needing the benefit of the doubt.
Maybe Rutgers stumbles to Purdue, or Maryland doesn’t make it out of the bracket’s lower half. Penciling in an Iowa win with Adam Mazur on the hill Wednesday seems like a safe bet, but his last start against Indiana at least proved the Big Ten pitcher of the year is human. And what if Iowa’s offense, headlined by conference freshman of the year Keaton Anthony and first-team selection Peyton Williams, gets swallowed up by the cavernous Omaha ballpark? Nothing is too crazy when the postseason lights flip on.
Short of winning the league, Iowa has arguably put itself in the best reasonable position possible to match its preseason regional hype with an NCAA Tournament ticket. Not dropping a series in six weeks can construct the momentum needed to finish the job the way past Hawkeyes teams haven’t.
It’s on Iowa to make that belief reality in Omaha.
"We're excited for a new opportunity," Anthony said.
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.