Iowa baseball finds offense, fights off Big Ten Tournament elimination in win over Penn State
OMAHA — There are two ways to interpret early innings full of baserunners that ultimately don't score.
Through one lens, they're missed opportunities begging to prove costly later. Through another, the consistent traffic is a sign of looming breakthroughs.
The Hawkeyes finally made it the latter Saturday.
After more offensive frustration dominated the initial stages of the Iowa baseball team's Big Ten Tournament elimination game, the Hawkeyes busted through in the middle innings while cycling through Penn State pitchers with little resistance. The result was an 11-3 Hawkeyes win at Charles Schwab Field, which advanced Iowa to Saturday's evening game against No. 5 seed Michigan.
Iowa (35-18) will need to beat the Wolverines (30-25) in that game — plus again Sunday morning — to reach the championship game.
"Our offense came to life and we were putting pressure on Penn State from the first inning on," Iowa coach Rick Heller said. "It looked like one of those games where all the runners we stranded were going to come back to haunt us.
"But we just stayed after it."
Although Iowa's five Friday runs were a breakthrough given the Hawkeyes' recent Omaha futility, there were few hard hits in that must-win game against Purdue. Early on Saturday, Iowa displayed the reverse.
Iowa surpassed Thursday's hit total against Penn State (26-29) within the opening seven batters, as the Hawkeyes loaded the bases once in each of the first three innings and twice in the fourth. But plating runs was still an elusive task. The Hawkeyes held just a 2-1 advantage on fourth-inning RBI singles by Michael Seegers (4-for-6, 2 runs, RBI) and Will Mulflur. The inability to convert with the bases loaded prevented Iowa from pulling away.
Until Cade Moss dug in.
The Johnston catching product didn't pick up his first hit this season until April 24, but Moss has turned it on in May — and particularly in the Big Ten Tournament — as playing time has increased. His two-run single finally ended Iowa's bases-loaded conundrum and handed the Hawkeyes a 4-1 advantage.
Moss is hitting .400 (4-for-10) with three RBIs in Omaha and has been a crucial bottom-of-the-lineup catalyst. The momentum discovered in the fourth spilled into the fifth and sixth, where the Hawkeyes produced two more crooked numbers.
"Cade's been a huge lift for us," Heller said. "Quality at-bat after quality at-bat. Lots of hits, hit by pitches, walks. He just gets on base. It's been about three weeks that Cade's been playing consistently day in and day out. He's been a sparkplug for us and has been doing a good job with the pitching staff."
Kyle Huckstorf's opposite-field shot into the Penn State bullpen ignited a three-run fifth, which also featured an Izaya Fullard RBI single and a run-scoring error on a ball Peyton Williams put in play. Two more runs in the sixth answered the Nittany Lions' two-spot in the top half. Williams smacked a two-run homer in the eighth for good measure.
A heavy dose of tack-on runs not only moved Iowa further away from elimination, it allowed Heller to navigate through the latter innings without using his top-tier relievers after Ty Langenberg tossed 5⅔ productive frames. The bullpen combination of Jacob Henderson, Luke Llewellyn and Duncan Davitt had a few tense moments — mostly thanks to four walks surrendered over the final 3⅓ — but Penn State never mustered a serious big-inning threat after falling well behind.
"Having the guys back me up," Langenberg said, "through those first few innings when we had the bases loaded, I knew it was going to be one of those games where the bats eventually break through."
Iowa now enters the nightcap of what it hopes is two doubleheaders in as many days. The Hawkeyes still haven't used arms like Connor Schultz, Brody Brecht and others. First pitch against Michigan is roughly scheduled for 6 p.m. — or 45 minutes after the Indiana-Maryland game ends.
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.