By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – As I walked to my car after covering the Iowa baseball team’s series-clinching 1-0 victory over No. 18 UC Irvine on Saturday, I thought about my first next door neighbor in Iowa City.
His name was Fred Breckner and he was in his early 80s when I moved to Iowa City in June 1991.
I quickly learned that Fred was a huge fan of Upper Iowa University, and he was especially fond of its head baseball coach at the time, a guy in his late 20s named Rick Heller.
Fred used to always say that if the people running the Iowa Athletic Department had any brains, they’d hire Rick Heller because he truly was special.
Fred predicted nearly 30 years ago that Heller would be a huge success as a college baseball coach, and Fred was right.
And the folks at Iowa finally did have enough brains to hire Heller shortly after the 2013 season, and the results have been just what Fred predicted they’d be.
Heller has built Iowa into one of the top programs in the Big Ten and his work was on display Saturday before a packed house at Banks Field.
A team like UC Irvine wouldn't have come to Iowa City unless the Hawkeyes were worth facing from a competitive standpoint.
The Hawkeyes improved to 28-16 overall and have now won six consecutive series and will look for the series sweep against a nationally ranked opponent on Sunday.
Iowa has now won series against UC Irvine, Oklahoma State, Illinois and Nebraska, and all four of those teams are likely headed to the postseason.
Heller's squad benefitted from solid pitching, top-notch defense and timely hitting in Saturday's victory.
“Sometimes, you just have to find a way to get it done, and today was one of those days,” Heller said.
Heller’s teams at Iowa have been finding ways to get it done ever since he arrived with a reputation for getting the most out of his players from a talent standpoint.
Everything that Fred Breckner said would happen under Heller is now happening under Heller.
Iowa is poised to win at least 30 games for the sixth consecutive season, and a third appearance in the NCAA Tournament is now within reach, helped considerably by back-to-back victories over the Anteaters, who fell to 28-12 overall.
“I think it’s a big feather in our cap, obviously,” Heller said. “You play the teams on your schedule and all the teams we’ve played that have been ranked are high in the RPI. We’ve had a lot of success against them.
“Hopefully, we come out tomorrow and play well like we’ve been doing and get another one. That would be great. But if not, we just have to keep playing well and give ourselves a chance to win.”
Iowa continues to get solid starting pitching as sophomore Cam Baumann threw the first five innings on Saturday and scattered seven hits and allowed just one walk while improving to 4-2 on the season.
Baumann’s performance was preceded by Cole McDonald’s seven-inning gem in Friday’s 6-3 victory in the series opener.
“It’s absolutely essential if you’re going to have a great year, and so far, so good,” Heller said of the starting pitching. “Our starters have done a great job."
It takes more than starters, though, and Iowa is loaded at the back end, too, as demonstrated in Saturday’s victory.
Jason Foster pitched the sixth and seventh innings and allowed no hits, while Grant Leonard recorded a six-out save, with half of his outs coming via strikeouts.
Leonard also allowed no hits while recording his 12th save on the season. He trails only Kevin Lee's 13 saves in 2010 for the most in a single season in Hawkeye history.
“Maybe the biggest thing for me is my confidence, obviously,” Leonard said. “The big thing I’ve kind of made strides on this year is just making one pitch at a time and don’t worry about what happened last time.”
Pinch runner Lorenzo Elion scored the game’s only run in the fifth on a single up the middle by shortstop Tanner Wetrich.
“I was sitting on a fastball and just trying to put a good swing on a pitch, and he hung a curve ball and I was just trying to put it in the right center gap,” Wetrich. “I put a good swing on it, and lucky it got through.”
What makes Iowa’s performance this season even more impressive is the number of injuries that have occurred, and yet, the players still are finding ways to win.
Iowa lost starting pitcher Jack Dreyer and top reliever Ben Probst both to season-ending arm injuries early in the season.
Senior second baseman Mitchell Boe was also injured recently and his position was filled by Izaya Fullard on Saturday.
“I’ve practiced at second a lot and I’ve been practicing behind Mitch all year and he’s really helped me out a lot and really made me comfortable at that position,” Fullard said. “So he kind of helped me and gave me the confidence to play there today.”
The fans continue to show their appreciation for what Heller has accomplished by showing up in large numbers to support his team.
The atmosphere on Saturday was ideal for baseball, from the sunny weather to the large turnout to the highly competitive matchup on the field.
Rick Heller has made Iowa baseball relevant again, and his players are gaining confidence with each win.
“We’re playing with a ton of confidence,” Leonard said. “That’s I believe somebody said six straight series wins. And it’s just great to get this one in front of our home crowd.
“We’re playing really good right now at the perfect time. So it’s fun to be around here right now.”