Struggling Iowa baseball team hopes to get on a roll in the Big Ten Tournament

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Iowa coach Rick Heller flanked by his assistant coaches. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Senior Chris Whelan isn’t about to let doubt creep in just because of what has happened to the Iowa baseball team over the past two weekends.

He and his teammates and coaches have accomplished too much this season to let Iowa’s current five-game losing streak shatter their confidence.

It doesn’t matter that Iowa barely made the eight-team Big Ten Tournament, which starts on Wednesday in Omaha, Neb., as the No. 8 seed.

All that matters to Whelan is that Iowa has made the conference tournament for the sixth consecutive season, and with that comes a fresh start and a chance to still accomplish something special, as Iowa did two years ago when it won the Big Ten Tournament.

The Hawkeyes will face No. 1 seed Indiana in the first round at approximately 5 p.m. on Wednesday at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha. The Hoosiers swept Iowa in the opening Big Ten series by a combined score of 23-4 over three games in Bloomington, Ind.

But then Iowa rebounded to win six consecutive series and was ranked briefly in the top 25 before struggling over the past two weeks against Michigan State at home and at Maryland.

“There is really no reason to focus too much on what happened the last two weeks,” Whelan said Monday before practice. “You’ve just got to move passed it and have a couple good days of practice here and just kind of reset your mind because we all know what we’re capable of. We’ve done it the last two months, just played real good baseball. We just ran into some really tough opponents.

“But it’s a brand new season. Everybody has got to reset and kind of go back to understanding how good we are and get that confidence back.”

That sentiment was echoed by two of Whelan’s senior teammates, and by Iowa head coach Rick Heller on Monday.

Of course, they’re disappointed with how the regular season ended. But they see the conference tournament as a chance to change the course of the season and to get back to playing at a level that has come to be expected under Heller.

“It isn’t like there is a total collapse,” Heller said. “Just a little blip on the radar, and unfortunately, at the wrong time of the year to have it. I think everyone of our guys is fired-up and ready for a fresh start and clean slate going into postseason and try to run the table. That’s what we have to do to get into the (NCAA) tournament.

“But it’s still right there in front of us, and I don’t really care how we got to the tournament. I’m just happy to be going, and the sixth straight year for the program. There has been a lot of positives to this season and I’m not going to let five losses at the end of year ruin that.”

And though multiple factors have contributed to Iowa’s recent skid, a lack of quality starting pitching has been the biggest problem.

Iowa has surrendered at least eight runs in four of the past five games, with the one exception being a 7-5 loss to Michigan State on May 12th at Banks Field.

Heller has been concerned about the pitching holding up during a season in which injuries have been a huge factor.

Iowa lost starting pitcher Jack Dreyer and key reliever Ben Probst to injuries early in the season, but it didn’t seem to have an effect until late in the regular season.

Reliever Kyle Shimp also will miss the Big Ten Tournament due to a nerve issue in his throwing arm.

“If you look at the season we all knew that there was a chance that the guys that we’re being rode pretty hard all year long that it may come back to haunt us,” Heller said. “Now when I say that, I don’t think they’ve been rode hard from a pitch-count standpoint. It’s just having to do so much to give us a chance to win.”

Whelan is eager for a chance at redemption against the Hoosiers. And he doesn’t think Indiana will take Iowa lightly despite having dominated the regular-season series.

“I sure hope they take us lightly because that would be pretty bad for them,” Whelan said. “But I don’t think they will. They understand what we’re capable of, especially looking at out last couple months outside of these last two weeks. I don’t think their coaches are telling them to take us lightly at all. I think we’re going to get their best effort just like they’re going to get ours.”

Senior Cole McDonald will start on the mound for Iowa on Wednesday, and he has reason to be confident. McDonald nearly defeated Indiana in the regular season, losing the first game in the series 3-2 in what McDonald said might have been his top performance of the season.

Indiana then crushed Iowa in the next two games by scores of 13-1 and 7-1.

“Confidence is definitely really strong,” McDonald said. “Everyone is definitely ready to go. We just need to get kind of get back to do what we’ve been doing for the whole entire season. Just because we haven’t played well the last two weeks doesn’t mean we’re a bad team.

“Obviously, we have the talent. We can play with the best teams in the nation. So it’s just getting back to executing at a higher level than what we have been the last two weeks and it starts on Wednesday.”

Senior second baseman Mitchell Boe is just grateful to have another chance to compete in the conference tournament.

“We’re still in my opinion one of the best teams in the Big Ten,” Boe said. “So were looking at it like we’re going to take it head on. It’s a new season for us.”

Whelan has motivation just from being a senior.

He called the last two weeks the strangest that he has ever experienced in baseball, and now Iowa is in the dubious position of almost certainly having to win the Big Ten Tournament in order to make the NCAA Tournament for the third time in six seasons under Heller.

"No one wants to go home at this point,” Whelan said. “Speaking for myself as a senior and kind of being selfish at this point, I don’t want my career to end and it’s not going to end in Omaha. And that’s the mindset I’m going in with and I know a lot of guys are feeling the same way.”