Late February baseball a big hit for the Iowa baseball team

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Some of the 1,059 fans who attended Tuesday's home opener at Banks Field

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Mother Nature even seems to perform better for Iowa baseball coach Rick Heller.

Because for the third year in a row, Iowa played its home opener in late February in unseasonably warm weather with the temperature close to 60 degrees at the start of Tuesday's game against Division III opponent Cornell College.

The Hawkeyes cruised to a 15-1 victory before an announced crowd of 1,059 at Banks Field.

Seven Iowa pitchers combined for 12 strikeouts and scattered six hits, giving fans an early look at the defending Big Ten Tournament champion.

The Hawkeyes, who improved to 6-1, scored seven runs in the first inning and were never threatened.

“It went about as well as we could have planned,” said Heller, who has led a remarkable resurgence at Iowa with each of his first four teams winning at least 30 games. “We had a chance to get all the position players in and jumped on them right away with seven to ease the pressure a little bit.”

Iowa should dominate a Division III opponent, so the lopsided score really shouldn’t be a surprise.

This game was about more than just winning and losing. It was about promoting the sport of baseball, which has soared in popularity since Heller was hired shortly after the 2013 season.

The game also gave the Cornell players under the direction of head coach Seth Wing a chance to compete on a much bigger stage and against a team that many of them probably grew up cheering for and hoping to be a part of in college.

Cornell dressed more than 50 players for Tuesday’s game as members of its junior-varsity squad also made the trip to Iowa City. The line of Cornelll players for the National Anthem stretched well beyond third base.

“If a fight broke out, we were in trouble,” Heller joked. “That’s what I told our guys.”

The 54-year old Heller played baseball and coached for Upper Iowa, so he knows the thrill of stepping up in competition.

“He’s done a good job, he recruits hard, Seth does,” Heller said of Wing. “He runs a full JV program and very similar to what we did while I was at Upper Iowa. We’d always have a big roster like that and play 30, 35 JV games.

“It’s smart, get guys to develop. When somebody goes down, you’ve got guys to go to. So it’s a good deal for them.”

Heller feels fortunate to be 6-1 at this stage because he hasn’t been overly pleased with Iowa’s level of performance so far on offense or defense.

“The great thing about it is we’ve had a lot of game so far where we haven’t really played very well, so to be able to find ways to win and then be able to work on them without having to suffer has been great,” Heller said. “I just hope we can build this weekend and clean up our defense.

“I really felt like the pitching came around this past weekend.”

The Hawkeyes will return to action on Friday, opening a three-game series at Alabama-Birmingham.

Senior Tyler Cropley had a two-run double in the first inning, while third baseman Lorenzo Elion drove in three runs in his home debut.

“It was great, the weather was great, we had lots of support,” said Elion, a Chicago native who made all-region as a freshman for Kirkwood College last season. “I was just so pumped to be out here. It was a great day.”

One of the challenges facing this Iowa team is learning to play without star first baseman Jake Adams, who smacked a school record 29 home runs during his only season as a Hawkeye last year.

Adams was selected in the sixth round of the 2017 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Houston Astros with the 181st pick. He was Iowa’s highest draft pick since 1999 and highest by a position player since 1992.

“I think we’re going to be a work in progress,” Heller said. “Really, a lot like last year and we just kept getting better and better and better. These guys, the more at bats they get and then get a few hits to fall and start getting some confidence.

“I wouldn’t say that anybody is really hot right now. So to be able to be 6-1 and we don’t have anyone hot offensively, and we’ve got five or six guys that are scuffling a little bit, is a pretty good thing.”

Freshmen pitchers Trenton Wallace, Jack Dreyer and Ben Probst all looked sharp on the mound on Tuesday.

Wallace started the game and had four strikeouts with no walks over three innings. Dreyer pitched the fifth and sixth innings and allowed just one hit with three strikeouts, while Probst retired the final out of the game with a five-pitch strikeout.

Probst, a former West Des Moines Dowling star, threw four fastballs of a least 90 miles per hour and then finished the game with an off-speed pitch that was clocked at 76.

“He’s got a lot of potential,” Heller said of Probst. “You look at that group of freshmen arms, those guys are the future of the Hawkeyes.  And all those guys have a chance to be really special.”

Wallace had a seven-run lead before he even took the mound for the first time.

“It’s definitely easy to settle in after an offensive performance that comes out with seven runs in the first inning,” Wallace said. “It definitely proves a point that we’re going to get on top of you early.”

As for playing the home opener in late Februray, Heller seems determined to keep doing it.

Tuesday's game was scheduled well in advance, whereas last year Heller scrambled to schedule the home opener after learning what the weather would be.

“With the turf, it gives you a chance,” Heller said. “If we have a nice day, we need to be playing this time of year. It just makes things a lot better for us. Once we get that first home game, it seems like just things settle down and they feel more normal, even on the road. It’s just kind of crazy that way.

“But it was really good to be here. The guys felt comfortable and they were having fun. And all that stuff really helps out.”

Cornell 000 100 000 – 1 6 4

Iowa 710 100 60x – 15 10 0