Iowa baseball kicks off pivotal series with win over Michigan State
IOWA CITY — If there was any belief Iowa baseball's mentally grueling week would have the Hawkeyes down and distracted for the season's most pivotal series, Rick Heller's bunch answered that question with a resounding "no."
Iowa turned in a vintage Friday night performance, pairing dominant mound work with timely hitting from guys whose importance and playing time should increase in the games ahead. After several days in the headlines as part of Iowa's widespread sports-gambling situation — plus final exams added on top — the Hawkeyes fought through all turbulence en route to a 9-0 win over Michigan State on a gorgeous night at Duane Banks Field.
"A lot of things that could've been excuses to not be very good tonight," Heller said. "And we played as well as we have in a long time."
For all the distractions flying, Iowa (35-12, 11-7 Big Ten Conference) couldn't afford to let momentum evaporate amid an important postseason push. The Spartans (29-17, 10-9) and their top-80 RPI offered the Hawkeyes one last regular-season chance to add substance to its regional resume. A series stumble and Iowa would have NCAA Tournament work to do without much opportunity to do so.
With leading hitter Keaton Anthony still sidelined (although back in the dugout, unlike last weekend versus Ohio State), Iowa's well-balanced lineup needed to keep spreading the love.
The Hawkeyes did in several key ways.
At the center of the offensive responsibility increase are outfielders Kyle Huckstorf and Sam Petersen, two solid hitters who were again in the middle of Iowa's action. Petersen clobbered a solo homer in the second as part of his four-hit night, also getting Huckstorf home in the third on a well-executed break play that saw Huckstorf score from third after Petersen generated a rundown on a delayed steal.
"It just felt like we were always hitting, always in the dugout off our feet," Petersen said. "It felt like everyone in the dugout was just waiting for the next time to get a hit off those guys."
Elsewhere, names who should see their roles amplified delivered in similar fashion. Cedar Rapids Jefferson product Brayden Frazier got the call Friday in place of Anthony. All he did was ignite two-out production in the second and respond with a two-run homer in the fifth. The latter handed Iowa a 5-0 advantage and supplied additional cushion for Marcus Morgan, who authored another lesson on clutch execution in crucial spots.
Morgan's final line may not indicate much trouble — six hitless innings with six strikeouts — yet Michigan State had its leadoff man on in the first four innings via three walks and a hit by pitch. Morgan actually walked the game's first two hitters, producing an early mound visit from pitching coach Sean McGrath. Reliever Jared Simpson began lightly tossing before fans were fully settled in the seats.
However, that's where the Spartan production stopped.
Morgan became more effective as the innings wore on, eventually retiring the final nine hitters he faced in his first Friday outing. For all the talk about how Iowa must adjust offensively, the Hawkeyes need to get their weekend rotation right before postseason play — and this could be a monumental step toward doing so.
"It was all just committing to each pitch that I threw," Morgan said. "Obviously, way too many leadoff walks. Definitely lots of room to improve there. I think there are a lot of takeaways from this game. Even though the scoreboard may look good, I think there are a lot of areas that can be cleaned up. It also helps when guys are making plays left and right for you."
The night as a whole had a stabilizing feel after a hectic week. While Anthony's status and others remain in doubt — "I don't know much of anything," Heller said, "Our people are working hard to sort this out and get an answer if there is one." — the Hawkeyes showed they're ready to handle whatever is ahead.
Dargan Southard is a sports trending reporter and covers Iowa athletics for the Des Moines Register and HawkCentral.com. Email him at email@example.com.