IOWA CITY, Iowa – Fans had reason to be excited about the present and future of the Iowa baseball team with what happened on Saturday at Banks Field.
Iowa defeated Penn State 8-4 and kept its postseason hopes alive with a three-game series sweep against the conference’s last-place team.
The Hawkeyes are seeded sixth in the Big Ten Tournament and will face No. 3 seed Michigan in the first round at 9 a.m., on Wednesday in Omaha, Neb.
Iowa avoided potential disaster by sweeping Penn State because anything less would’ve meant that Iowa had to win the Big Ten Tournament in order to make the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five seasons under head coach Rick Heller.
It’ll still probably take at least two or three victories in the conference tournament for Iowa to have a realistic chance of making the NCAA Tournament.
So the margin for error still hasn’t changed despite Iowa currently riding a five-game winning streak.
The Hawkeyes finished the regular season with records of 33-18 overall and 13-9 in the Big Ten and haven’t lost since being shutout 4-0 in the second game of their three-game series at Northwestern last weekend.
Iowa also lost the first game against Northwestern and those two losses now loom large as baggage for Iowa.
But that still didn’t dampen the mood at Banks Field after Saturday’s much-needed victory.
It never is easy sweeping any Big Ten opponent under any circumstance. But to do it with your post-season hopes on the line in all three games takes it to another level.
As for the future looking bright, freshman pitcher Jack Dreyer provided hope in that regard by continuing to excel as a late-season starter.
The southpaw from Johnston pitched the first six innings and allowed just two runs and had six strikeouts. Dreyer had good movement and command of his pitches throughout Saturday’s start as evidenced by him walking just one batter.
Iowa had sputtered out of the gate on offense in the first two games against Penn State, failing to score in the first five innings of both contests.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday, though, as the Hawkeyes erupted for five runs in the bottom of the second inning.
Sophomore Lorenzo Elion drove in one run with a double and junior Robert Neustrom drove in two more with a bases-loaded single.
Iowa added three more runs in the sixth inning and Penn State never mounted much of a threat after that.
Iowa’s four seniors were honored before the game, and though small in numbers, the class has made a significant contribution to the rise under Heller.
Cropley now ranks among the top catchers in college baseball and is one of 16 semifinalist for the Johnny Bench Award.
The former Sioux City Heelan star played his first two seasons in junior college and was overshadowed last season at Iowa by fellow junior-college recruit Jake Adams, who led the nation with 29 home runs.
But from the time he arrived on campus, Cropley has been one of Iowa’s most important and dependable players on offense and defense.
Fellow senior Matt Hoeg also has played a key role, as have fellow seniors Austin Guzzo and Nick Nelsen, who is the only pitcher in the group.
Nelsen came in as relief for Dreyer in the seventh inning and struck out the first batter he faced. It was Iowa’s seventh strikeout of the game and its 32nd in the three-game series.
Nelsen gave up-back-to-back doubles as Penn State cut the lead to 8-3 with one out in the seventh. But he ended the threat by retiring the next two batters on a pop fly and a strikeout.
The four seniors certainly will be missed, but there still is plenty of season left if Iowa can just keep winning.
Iowa won the Big Ten Tournament last season and has won at least 30 games in each of the five seasons under Heller.
Junior pitcher Cole McDonald also has returned from an arm injury that looked more serious than it proved to be. He started Friday's game and threw four shutout innings while following a pitch count.
McDonald's injury did have a bright side, besides the quick recovery, in that it allowed for Dreyer to emerge as a reliable starter.
Iowa is getting healthy at the right time, and maybe peaking at the right time.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that Iowa, with an RPI in the 60s, still has a lot of work to do to make the NCAA Tournament.
It won't be easy, but the Big Ten Tournament seems to bring out the best in Iowa.
And it'll take Iowa's best to meet this challenge.