By Pat Harty
The Iowa baseball team is back to having absolutely no margin for error in its now long-shot quest to make the NCAA Tournament for the third time in five seasons under Rick Heller.
Iowa already had plenty of work to do at the Big Ten Tournament in Omaha, Neb., but now after losing to Michigan 2-1 in the first round on Wednesday morning, anything less than a second consecutive title would almost certainly end the season.
Iowa dug itself a deeper hole as No. 3 seed Michigan scored the game-winning run on a sacrifice fly to right field in the bottom of the 10th inning at TD Ameritrade Park.
It marked just the sixth time in 52 games that Iowa has failed to score more than one run.
The most recent time before Wednesday’s game was a 4-0 shutout loss at lowly Northwestern less than two weeks ago.
Iowa also was held to just one hit, wasting yet another strong pitching performance from junior ace Nick Allgeyer.
A day after being named first-team All-Big Ten, the southpaw from St. Louis showed why he was honored by recording yet another quality start that included nine strikeouts over seven innings.
Sixth-seed Iowa will play Ohio State at 9 a.m. on Thursday in an elimination game. The seventh-seed Buckeyes lost to Purdue in the first round on Wednesday.
The loser will go home, while the winner will try to accomplish what hasn't been done before. Since the tournament expanded to eight teams in the 2014 season, not a single first-round loser has even made it to the title game.
Wolverine pitchers retired 20 consecutive hitters to end the game, holding Iowa to one hit and zero baserunners after the fourth inning.
"For us it felt like Michigan had 15 fielders out there," Heller said. "You hit three balls off the pitcher and you don't get a hit. They were making diving plays left and right, same thing in the outfield -- they made a nice play or it was right at them. Then we kind of hit a wall in the later innings."
The Hawkeyes produced an unearned run in the second when Matt Hoeg scored from third on a Michigan fielding error. But Iowa failed to put a runner in scoring position for the rest of the game.
And though it’s asking a lot for Iowa to defend its tournament title from the losers’ bracket, stranger things have happened.
This Iowa team has been very resilient and timely with its execution.
It had no margin for error against Penn State and met the challenge by winning all three games in the series to end the regular season this poast weekend.
But that was against arguably the worst team in the conference, and the games were played in the friendly confines of Banks Field.
Only the top eight teams make the Big Ten Tournament and it’s hard to draw a lot of fan support when you play at nine in the morning on a work day in Omaha.
There were times this season when Iowa struggled to score runs, but nothing to suggest that the offense was this vulnerable or at risk of being completely shut down.
Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the opposing pitchers because they had a lot to do with silencing the Iowa bats.
Michigan’s performance on the mound was even more impressive considering starter Tommy Henry only faced five batters. He had to be removed from the game after being drilled in the forearm by Iowa’s Robert Neustrom.
Right hander Alec Rennard replaced Henry and limited Iowa to just one hit and one walk through 5 2/3 scoreless innings.
Iowa fell to 33-19 overall and is just one loss from having its season end.
The season already has been a success in some ways, especially considering where Iowa was as a program before Heller arrived.
But Heller and the players would be the first to say that making an NCAA Regional is now the expectation for Iowa, and to not do it would be a huge disappointment.