By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – One of my lasting takeaways from the Iowa baseball team’s 2017 media day event was what Rick Heller said about junior-college transfer Tyler Cropley.
Heller gushed over Cropley’s potential as a catcher, but also as an all-around player, saying Cropley was fast enough to bat lead-off despite being a catcher.
Cropley would go on to have a solid junior season last spring, but he played in the shadow of fellow junior college transfer Jake Adams, who led the nation with 29 home runs last season.
Adams is now playing professionally, while Cropley continues to be a driving force for the Hawkeyes as he showed on Sunday in stunning and spectacular fashion.
Cropley’s walk-off two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning lifted Iowa to a 7-5 come-from-behind victory over Big Ten leader Michigan before a near-standing-room only crowd at Banks Field. Iowa won two of the three games in the series and improved to 26-14 overall and 9-7 in the Big Ten, while Micihigan fell to 25-13 and 12-2.
Cropley's game-winning blast, which sailed over the left field fence, came one pitch after he appeared to have hit a game-winner under much different circumstances.
The South Dakota native hit a pop-up that landed in fair territory near home plate and the first base line.
Michigan catcher Harrison Salter and relief pitcher Jeff Criswell let the ball land between them and that allowed the runner from second base to cross home plate for what was thought to be the game-winning run.
A wild celebration erupted as the Iowa players mobbed Cropley, but it was ruled that the ball rolled foul without a Michigan player touching it.
"No use hollering about that," Heller said. "It was clear he didn't touch it."
Cropley had to calm down and regain his focus in the batter’s box, and that’s exactly what he did with two strikes.
“What happened to him where we had the celebration and then to have to call it back and go back to the batter’s box with two strikes facing a guy like that, to get your heart rate back down and to be able to do what he did, that’s pretty phenomenal,” Heller said. “It shows you a lot about the toughness and the makeup of Tyler.
“And not to mention his physical ability.”
Cropley’s home run was his sixth this season and it capped a dramatic comeback for the Hawkeyes, who trailed 5-0 after an inning-and-a-half.
Iowa ended Michigan’s 20-game winning streak on Friday and then won the rubber match on Sunday, thanks to Cropley’s poise and power at the plate.
But he hardly was a solo act.
Junior Zach Daniels pitched the final four innings in relief and allowed just two hits and no runs.
Iowa had to rely on its bullpen after starter Cole McDonald left the game in the fourth inning with an arm injury.
“I wanted to come in and keep the game, close, obviously,” Daniels said.
Iowa was coming off a 10-2 loss to Michigan on Saturday, and Sunday's game showed signs of being more of the same after Michigan scored the first five runs.
But instead of folding, Cropley and his cohorts chipped away at the deficit, scoring one run in the second inning, two in the third, one in the fourth, one in the seventh and two in the ninth.
“We could have gotten down, but we didn’t,” Daniels said. “And once I saw the one-run inning and then two, I could kind of see that fight coming back. And we’ve seen it many times with this team before. So I knew it would happen at some point.”
Daniels also felt confident, even after Cropley’s pop fly was ruled foul.
“He’s had a great year, he’s had clutch hit after clutch hit,” Daniels said. “So I felt really, really good with him up at the plate after that. I kind of expected it, honestly.”
Heller thought when Cropley joined the team last season that Cropley probably would bat sixth or seventh in the order, or maybe even lead off due to his unusual speed for a catcher.
But Cropley has exceeded Heller's expectations as a hitter.
“We recruited primarily because we needed a real good catcher and he brought that right away,” Heller said. “He can throw. He can block. And he can receive. He’s really improved even in those areas. But he has improved so much with his swing. His swing has continued to get better and better and his confidence is there.
“He hits fast balls. He can hit the breaking ball.”
Cropley’s game-winning blast came on a breaking ball, which had been preceded by a 93-mile per hour fast ball that he hit foul.
“It felt good enough and I knew the wind was going to push it a little ways, so I kind of had an idea that it was going to go,” Cropley said.
Cropley also showed his talent on defense as he kept at least two pitches in the top of ninth inning from getting passed him despite being way out of the strike zone and with a runner on second base. He dove to his left to catch one pitch that sailed outside to a left-handed batter and he smotherd another pitch that bounced in front of home plate.
"Super big," Heller said. "And that's what he brings to us every single day is that ability to not only receive, but to block as well."
Iowa now enters a busy week that starts with a game against Missouri on Tuesday at Banks Field.
Big 12 power Oklahoma State also will come to Iowa City for a three-game series this coming Friday through Sunday at Banks Field.
Playing those games would be difficult under any circumstance, but Iowa might have to do it without McDonald, who already has had Tommy John surgery.
"With the Tommy John guys, sometimes the scar tissue will break loose and stuff like that," Heller. "That's all we can kind of hope for at this point."