Clutch Penn State homer sends Nittany Lions past Iowa baseball in Big Ten Tournament opener
OMAHA — Keaton Anthony dropped his head and trudged forward as pivotal Penn State insurance sailed far over his head, deep into the right-field seats. The Hawkeyes' day to that point had already featured its fair share of issues. This one was by far the most crushing.
For all that Iowa navigated through in Thursday's Big Ten Tournament opener, the Hawkeyes couldn't afford to absorb a hanging breaking ball to the league's most forceful hitter. Penn State catcher Matt Wood and his ridiculous power stats didn't miss this Duncan Davitt mistake. Once his sixth-inning, three-run homer finally landed just short of the right-field concourse, Iowa suddenly had a serious problem without much time to fix it.
Wood's deep blast propelled No. 6 seed Penn State to a 5-2 win over the third-seeded Hawkeyes at the newly named Charles Schwab Field Omaha. Iowa's at-large regional hopes likely can’t afford this stumble. And now, the Hawkeyes (33-18) need five wins in three days — including doubleheader sweeps on Saturday and Sunday — to emerge from Omaha with a guaranteed NCAA Tournament ticket.
"It wasn't our day," Iowa coach Rick Heller said. "We didn't play very well."
When examining Iowa's recent conference tournament draws, this one seemed like the most winnable opener in some time. Penn State (26-27) sputtered to the No. 6 seed in the final regular-season weekend, while Iowa soared to a sweep. With ace Adam Mazur on the mound and a dud start out of the way, all ingredients were there for a victorious Iowa day.
Mazur, though, wasn't totally crisp — likely in part because he was fighting through back spasms, which Heller revealed midway through during an in-game interview with Big Ten Network. Still, the potential first-round MLB Draft pick and conference pitcher of the year required longer than usual to slice through a lineup, and his pitch count rocketed upward as a result.
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He exited with Iowa only in a 2-1 hole, but still came out after needing 95 pitches to grunt through five frames. He achieved a starting pitcher's most basic objective this time of year — keep your team in the game — yet the earlier-than-normal move to the bullpen soon had its repercussions.
"(The back issues) kind of just started up this morning," Mazur said. "But we have a great medical staff, and they were able to get me going and get me loose before the game. Just had to battle through it with it being tournament time.
"You only really get one or two shots at this."
The Nittany Lions delivered theirs in a frame that looked to be going nowhere. Davitt cruised through the first two sixth-inning hitters, then inexplicably plunked the nine-hole hitter and walked the leadoff man. That set the table for Wood, who walloped a 75-mph hanger as Penn State's dugout and bullpen broke out in jubilation.
"That at bat, I feel like I really slowed myself down and got back to what made me successful this year," said Wood, who led the Big Ten with a .395 average and hit a staggering .413 during conference play. "I kind of had a feeling (Davitt) was going to go back to breaking ball there.
"And I didn't miss it."
That dagger was equally effective considering what Iowa had (or hadn't) produced on the offensive end.
Even with eight righties in the lineup, Iowa never got a good read on southpaw pitcher Tyler Shingledecker. He surrendered just one hit over 5 2/3 innings before giving way to reliever Travis Luensmann, who experienced similar success.
The Hawkeyes scraped across runs on a third-inning sacrifice fly from Kyle Huckstorf and another in the sixth when Izaya Fullard reached on a throwing error with two on. But the miniscule number in the hit column accentuated a morning full of frustrating at bats. The strike zone wasn't perfect, but neither was Iowa's offensive plan.
This isn't a new issue. Over the Hawkeyes' last 53 innings in Omaha, which covers six games and three trips here, Iowa has mustered just eight runs with 29 hits and 53 strikeouts. The stadium formerly known as TD Ameritrade Park will never be a hitter's haven, but those struggles go well beyond any park dimensions.
"They were hitting their spots, getting borderline pitches," Fullard said. "I think that kind of affected us a little bit, but that's really not an excuse. We have to adjust. First time through the order, yeah, you can use that. But you have to learn the strike zone and make an adjustment. We didn't do that today. We just have to be better."
Now the Hawkeyes are in survival mode beyond belief. They'll face Purdue at 9 a.m. Friday and will need to win two games Saturday and another Sunday morning to reach Sunday afternoon's title game. Their best pitcher has been spent.
Not an ideal situation at all.
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.