By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - There was a time not so long ago when Nick Gallagher probably thought he could relax on Fridays in the spring.
Gallagher originally had planned to attend the University of Iowa and serve as a student manager for the Iowa men’s basketball team.
But then Iowa baseball coach Rick Heller saw Gallagher pitch as a senior at West High, and Gallagher’s future changed dramatically after that.
“I wanted to stay in sports somehow,” Gallagher said Friday at Iowa’s annual media day event. “I never really expected to play baseball in college. And I kind of just planned on that, and then coach Heller saw one of my games my senior year, and the rest is history, I guess.”
“I’m kind of glad I made the decision quick.”
Heller was convinced after seeing a bigger and stronger Gallagher pitch as a high school senior that Gallagher could be effective at the Big Ten level.
Heller now looks like a genius, considering the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Gallagher will serve as Iowa’s Friday’s starter, which is the same as being the ace of the staff.
Gallagher earned Iowa’s ace-pitcher status after leading the team with eight victories last season as a redshirt freshman. He also limited hitters to a .211 batting average, the sixth lowest in the Big Ten.
His talent has continued to shine during the offseason, convincing Heller that Gallagher deserves to be his Friday starter.
“Nick is a great story,” Heller said. “He has come a long way and has worked extremely hard. And I will tell you the reason he’s going to be our Friday guy this year is because of his work ethic and his make-up.
“He has great stuff and has come a long way. Last year, he put up some really good numbers, big numbers, in mainly a relief role. We think he is ready to go as a starter.”
Asked what makes Gallagher worthy of being the Friday starter Heller said:
“He’s got great stuff. He’s got as good a stuff as anybody in the Big Ten.”
Heller said he read one publication that listed Gallagher as having the best breaking pitch in the conference. Combine that with a fastball that has been clocked at 94 miles per hour and Gallagher has star potential.
“We felt like the potential was there for sure,” Heller said. “The jump he made in high school was really impressive from his junior year to his senior year. The guys at West High did a really nice job with Nick that year before his senior year.
“And honestly, he was a late bloomer. His body changed a lot.”
Gallagher grew about three inches and added nearly 10 miles per hour on his fastball between his junior and senior year of high school.
“Anytime you can grow a couple inches it helps with velocity and everything like that,” Gallagher said. “I still am kind of growing a little bit. So I guess I’m still kind of growing into my body a little bit. I’m definitely getting stronger, and that’s helped me out a lot on the mound.”
Gallagher also has a stronger mental approach to pitching.
“I figured out in the last couple years how to pitch a lot better than just throwing and trying to blow guys away,” Gallagher said. “I try to hit my spots a lot more and keep people off balance. That’s the main thing.”
Gallagher is a part of a pitching staff that Heller thinks could be Iowa’s biggest strength this season. Junior C.J. Eldred was the Friday starter for part of last season and he returns to give Iowa another proven starter.
“I think we have a chance to be one of the best one-two punches in the country, I really do,” Eldred said. “The kid has worked hard and come a long ways, especially since freshman year. But I’m really excited to see what we can do as a one-two punch. And we’ve got a lot of options for Sunday, too.”
The stability and depth at pitcher is crucial as Heller welcomes 22 new players to the program. Heller will use the first series at South Florida to evaluate his third starter. There are 10 pitchers returning from a staff that posted the second-lowest ERA in school history in 2016 (3.54) with a school-record 382 strikeouts.
Iowa will face South Florida in the season opener on Feb. 17 in Tampa, Fla.
“With 22 new guys, I was a little concerned," Heller said Friday. "Our culture is strong, but there are a lot of new faces. The captains have done an amazing job - guys like Corbin Woods, Mason McCoy, Josh Martsching and C.J Eldred did a nice job setting the tone with this team and not letting that culture go backward.
“The chemistry is as good as any of the teams we have had here in my time. I feel good about the makeup of the team, the leadership has been strong."
Heller also feels good about the influx of junior college talent that has been added to the roster. South Dakota native Jake Adams is expected to start at first base and bring power to the lineup after combining to hit 42 home runs in two seasons in junior college.
“We’re hoping that Jake will be able to provide us a lot of power in the middle of the lineup for us there,” Heller said.
Adams is eager to help Iowa in the power department. He knows that Iowa hasn’t had many power hitters lately.
“I am aware, yes, I heard that,” Adams said of the lack of power hitters. “I would like to help Iowa a little bit with the power situation and excite some people here.”
Another junior college transfer to watch is Tyler Cropley, who isn’t your typical catcher.
“One of the big ones is Tyler Cropley, who will be our starting catcher and day one leadoff hitter, which you don’t hear very often,” Heller said. “He’s different type of catcher, real athletic and has a great arm and he can really run.”
Senior Mason McCoy also will play a key role as Iowa’s next starting shortstop. McCoy switched over to third base last season and was one of three Hawkeyes to start every game, including 47 at third base.
“I’ve played short my whole life so the bigger adjustment was going to third last year,” said McCoy, who hit .291 last season. “So shortstop is definitely a comforting position.”
Sophomore outfielder Robert Nuestrom also will be expected to play a prominent role after hitting .307 last season.
Heller is curious to see how his new-look team will perform on defense while in Florida. Iowa finished ranked in the top 15 nationally in fielding percentage in each of the past two seasons.
“We like to talk about the hitting and the fact we’ve scored runs and there have been some pretty big numbers put up offensively,” said Heller, who led Iowa to the NCAA Tournament in 2015. “But what we hang our hat on here and what has enabled us to win a lot of ball games is the pitching and the defense.”