By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Just by having a chance to host a team of Oklahoma State’s caliber was a triumph by itself for the Iowa baseball team.
But the Hawkeyes weren’t just satisfied with hosting one of college baseball traditional powers. They wanted to make a statement and did that by winning two of the three games in the much-anticipated series.
Iowa clinched the series on Sunday by cruising to an 11-3 victory before an announced attendance of 1,377 at Banks Field.
“That’s the thing I hope everybody understands, that was a really good team that was just here," Iowa coach Rick Heller said of Oklahoma State. “A testament to where our program is now thanks to all those guys who set the groundwork four and five years ago and put ourselves in a position where a team like that would want to play us for and RPI boost on the road, and then give us a chance to go down there next season.
“And then this group took care of business and found a way for to win a series against a highly ranked team and the first-place team in the Big 12.”
Iowa scored four runs in the bottom of the first inning and that was enough as freshman Jack Dreyer and relievers Grant Judkins and Nick Nelsen held the Cowboys to just six hits and three runs.
Dreyer pitched the first five innings and allowed only two hits and had six strikeouts, improving his record to 3-2 on the season.
“It’s just a great confidence builder to know that our guys are out and ready to play right away,” Dreyer said of the early 4-0 lead. “Whatever happens, they’re going to be there and they’re going to have my back. So I’m able to pitch with a ton of confidence.”
Dreyer replaced the injured Cole McDonald as the starter on Sunday and made the most of his opportunity.
“That was extremely impressive,” senior Chris Whelan said of Dreyer’s performance. “Us older guys can’t thank him enough for what he did there.”
Iowa improved to 28-16 with the victory, while Oklahoma State fell to 28-17-1.
The Hawkeyes already have played the most difficult part of the Big Ten schedule, but don’t try telling that to Heller.
He warned his players immediately after Sunday’s victory about the danger of taking any opponent lightly.
Iowa will return to Big Ten action with a three-game series at Northwestern this coming Friday through Sunday. The Hawkeyes will close the regular-season by hosting Penn State in a three-game series May 16-18 at Banks Field.
“In the big picture, they’re huge and that’s what we talked about in the locker room after we went over the game and talked about the guys taking finals this week is that we have to focus on the big picture and we all know we’re not good enough to just show up and beat anybody, that’s a fact,” Heller said. “And Northwestern has been a thorn in our side at times over the last few years.”
Dreyer pitched well enough on Sunday to have possibly earned another chance to start this coming weekend at Northwestern.
McDonald appears to have avoided a serious injury, but still needs more time to recover. He could return for the Penn State series.
"I really don't think even if Cole gets a positivbe on his ultrasound it'll be iffy if he's allowed to go next weekend anyway," Heller said. "So as we sit here today, we've got to look at it that way for sure and just do whatever you've got to to do to find a way to give yourself a chance to win."
Iowa combined to score 33 runs in the three games against Oklahoma State, including 16 during a victory on Saturday. The Hawkeyes pounded 14 hits in Sunday’s game and had five players with a least two hits.
Seniors Tyler Cropley and Matt Hoeg both had three hits and drove in two runs in Sunday’s game.
“It was just fun to see our guys play unselfishly, I guess is the best way to say it,” Heller said. “Guys weren’t swinging for themselves. They were trying to find ways to get on base and next man up and somebody will get a hit.
“Like Matt Hoeg said yesterday after the game, that’s really what they did the entire weekend. And when you get guys to play like that and not worry about yourself and just focus on what you can do to help the team, you’re on the verge of having something special.”
Iowa helped its post-season chances in a big way by winning the series against Oklahoma State. The Hawkeyes also won two of three games against Big Ten leader Michigan last weekend.
Iowa is trying to make the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five seasons under Heller. The Hawkeyes are also just two wins from a fifth consecutive 30-win season under Heller.
“These last two series are as big as anything,” Whelan said. “They’re as big as this weekend. So we can’t take them lightly and we just have to play our baseball.”
Heller praised his team for staying the course and for handling adversity. Iowa has shown a knack for erasing large deficits and for doing whatever it takes to win.
"They don't just sit back and we have to push them in practice," Heller said. "Those guys come out every single day with the intent to improve and get better. And big-picture wise, our goals were set in the fall, and now after this series, we still have a chance to reach those goals."