Iowa baseball scrapes by Purdue to remain alive in the Big Ten Tournament
OMAHA — Nine-inning survival efforts count just the same as masterpiece victories this time of year, and Rick Heller's Hawkeyes frankly didn't care which arrived Friday morning. Those swimming in baseball desperation aren't picky when it comes to extending the season.
After an offensive effort that was more effective than emphatic — plus gritty relief work in massive scoring spots — Iowa baseball is still breathing for at least one more day.
Izaya Fullard's two-out RBI single in the ninth inning cashed in Michael Seegers' heady baserunning to propel the Hawkeyes to a 5-4 win in Friday's Big Ten Tournament elimination game at Charles Schwab Field Omaha. Iowa (34-18) will now face Penn State again at 9 a.m. Saturday in what is also an elimination game.
"I'm really proud of our team," Heller said, "for just sticking with it and finding a way to get it done."
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Fullard got the winning knock. But it was an incredible sequence just moments prior that gave Iowa's veteran infielder the heroic opportunity. With Seegers on first following a one-out single, Peyton Williams cracked a big-league popup down the left-field line that Purdue third baseman Troy Viola chased down from deep in the shift. Viola made an incredible catch up against the tarp, but got tangled up enough that Seegers tagged and advanced to second.
Following an intentional walk to Keaton Anthony, Fullard fell behind 0-2 against reliever Landon Weins before whacking a single that Purdue's up-the-middle shift couldn't contain. The pivotal frame capped an Iowa offensive showing that finally rewarded its pitchers for quality Omaha innings.
"That last pitch, I saw (Weins) shake off and then kind of smirk a little bit," Fullard said. "I don't know why, but it just made me think he was going to try to blow a fastball by me. So I just made sure to get on time for a fastball and was able to put a good swing on it."
Offensive life was a welcomed change for a Hawkeyes lineup struggling to find, really anything in Omaha. The breakthrough finally arrived first with a three-run fifth, then another in the sixth — with both scoring frames featuring a small-ball approach the Hawkeyes rarely use. No one on the Iowa roster had more than two sacrifices during the regular season, yet the Hawkeyes leaned on three to help plate the four runs.
Cade Moss dropped down the first bunt in the fifth to move Sam Petersen into scoring position, and the Ballard product later scored on a passed ball. Seegers delivered the second sacrifice — a safety squeeze that plated Ben Wilmes without an out being recorded — before Kyle Huckstorf later scored on a bases-loaded wild pitch to give Iowa a hard-earned three-run frame that saw only one ball leave the infield.
At that point, though, the Hawkeyes simply needed something positive at the plate. Think, a shooter seeing the ball go through the hoop no matter the situation. It spilled over into the sixth, where Petersen's sacrifice moved pinch hitter Brayden Frazier into scoring position with one down. Moss cashed that bunt in too with a run-scoring double that handed the Hawkeyes a 4-2 advantage.
Given that Iowa made solid contact against Purdue starter CJ Backer and the Boilermakers bullpen three weeks ago in Iowa City, Heller admitted the offensive plan coming in was not of the small-ball variety. But in tournament time, you have to read the room.
"Doing this 35 years," Heller said, "(I knew offensively) we better figure out something here quick, or we're in trouble. That's what that was."
However, momentum Iowa uncovered there was soon wiped away. After an RBI groundout from Steve Ramirez in the fifth, Purdue pulled even with a two-run sixth that had no life to start — but there was plenty of Boilermaker energy by inning's end.
Following back-to-back two-out singles that plated one, Purdue tied the game on a costly fielding error from Wilmes at third. The Johnston product had a force play right next to him or could've easily thrown to first to end the frame with a clean field, but Wilmes got no leather on the bounding chopper that ended up in shallow left.
That could've been a defining play had Iowa's bullpen not shined when called upon. Ben Beutel picked off Ramirez in the seventh to disrupt a rally. Will Christophersen finished that inning off before tossing quick, clean frames in the eighth and ninth. All of it supplemented a decent effort from Dylan Nedved, who yielded seven hits and three earned runs over six frames.
"It means everything," said Christophersen, who punched out five of the seven hitters he faced over 2 1/3 hitless frames.
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This was far from the prettiest winning effort, but one that at least keeps the Hawkeyes afloat for a big weekend rally. Iowa still likely needs a couple more wins to resurface any at-large NCAA Tournament conversations. The Hawkeyes at least have that chance now after surviving Purdue's best shot.
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.