If the Hawkeyes are to make the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since 1990, seniors like DH Andy Jansen, 3B Ian Mattiace, and 1B Brad Carlson need to stay healthy and be productive. All three have been starting since their freshman season, and all three need to have good seasons to finish their college careers on a winning note.
Iowa Baseball has won eight Big Ten regular season titles and qualified for the Big Ten Tourney four times since it was started in the 1980s, but hasn't accomplished either achievement since the 1990 team won the conference with a 22-6 record (38-19 overall record). That team was also the last squad to be invited to the NCAA Tournament. Overall, the Hawks have been invited to postseason NCAA tourney action three times, and made the 1972 College World Series.
Since Iowa last made the Big Ten or NCAA tourneys, both have been expanded. Six teams are now invited to the Big Ten tourney every year, while 64 teams are now invited to the NCAAs. Unfortunately for Iowa, the program has not had a winning record since 1996, and has not finished in the upper half of the Big Ten Conference since 1994. Heading into Big Ten action this weekend, the Hawks have a record of 6-8.
Last season, the team was 19-29 overall, and 8-17 in the Big Ten. Like most teams that struggle, Iowa lost a lot of close games that could have gone either way. Sometimes it was an error that cost the game or the pitching could not keep the opposition down, but the Achilles Heel of the 2001 Hawks was the offense. Iowa was last in the Big Ten in runs scored (216), batting average (.266), home runs (22), and on base percentage (.334). Because the offense struggled, the pitching and defense were under more pressure to carry the load, any mistakes in those two phases of the game were magnified because the offense could not carry their share. Once the weather is warm in the North, college baseball is a high scoring game with talented hitters and their aluminum bats. Pitching and defense are still the major cornerstones to winning on a consistent basis, but the Iowa Offense must be competitive with other teams this season if the Hawks are going to move up in the standings.
Although the offense struggled last season, Iowa led the conference in fielding. Usually good fielding and good pitching go hand in hand, and 2001 was no different for Iowa as the Hawkeye pitching staff was 3rd in the league statistics. Although staff ace Chad Blackwell graduated, talented left-handed sophomore Ryan Mentkowski returns to lead the staff this season. Ryan had a 3-5 record last season, and only walked nine batters in 52 innings while striking out 29. He was named to the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American squad for his performance. He is 2-2 with a 3.54 ERA so far this season.
Junior Reed Pawelk was named to the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American team in 2000; he tied a school record that year with 12 saves out of the bullpen while also sporting a 3.18 ERA. Last season was also a solid year for Reed as the closer as he saved six games and had a 4.50 ERA, but his arm did not seem quite as lively as the previous year. This season, he has been moved to the starting rotation and has found immediate success with a 2-0 start and 3.60 ERA. Coach Broghamer expects that success to continue this season. "Pawelk has really stepped up. He is changing speeds more and has really developed a better breaking pitch. The credit for this must first go to Reed for being willing to make adjustments even though he has had success in the past."
Steve Sharpe rounds out the top of the rotation as he is 1-2 in four starts this season. He was 0-4 with a 4.80 ERA in nine starts last year. Nick Jenson started 11 games last season and was productive with a 4-6 record and 4.99 ERA, but has also been productive coming out of the bullpen so far this season with a 2.08 ERA in 3 appearances. Dyson Miguel and Matt Hasz are other proven arms in the relief corps.
Positions Around the Diamond
3B – Ian Mattiace has been a consistent force for the Hawks at the hot corner as he is a 4th year starter. He played center field as a freshman, but is in his 3rd year at third base. Ian has been the most dangerous bat in the Iowa lineup at times over the last two years, and overall has been very solid with a .280 career batting average, 22 home runs, and 79 RBIs. He was having a great year last season until slumping late in the campaign. This season, he is hitting .388 with 3 HRs and 13 RBIs. If he can stay consistent and get consistent help from his teammates so teams do not pitch around him, he could put up some good offensive numbers. Coach Broghamer feels that Ian will have a solid year defensively, and can really help the team with his ability to run the bases. "Ian and Andy Jansen really do a good job of reading pitchers and taking the extra base. Ian and Kyle Thousand are probably the fastest of the regular players. We've stolen and attempted to steal more bases per game this year than any year since I have been here." Broghamer joined the Iowa staff as a graduate assistant in 1986.
SS – This position sets the tone defensively for most teams, and graduated senior Kurt Vitense did just that for Iowa last season. Kurt was solid with the bat last season, but his glove was exceptional. He made the pitchers and the entire defense look better with his play. Jeff Gremley is the new starter, and the freshman has good range, but has already made 10 errors this season. He is only hitting .234, but shortstop is one of the toughest and most demanding positions for a freshman to play. He should continue to improve this year as he gets used to the speed of college baseball. "It is hard to replace a Kurt Vitense," said Coach Broghamer. "He made the plays and came to play every day. You're not going to move somebody in and say ‘Do what Kurt Vitense did.' Gremley runs well and has a very strong arm, but he is still a freshman that needs to get more consistent at making the routine plays. He is still learning that he can't sit back and rely on his arm all the time at this level."
2B – Freshman Andy Cox has started most of the games at this position, and has been very productive at the plate. Although he is a little tall for a second baseman at 6-3, his .370 batting average so far this season will make people forget how tall he is.
1B – Senior Brad Carlson was named to the Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American team in 1999. At the time, everything he touched turned to gold as he hit .367 with 21 HRs and 71 RBIs that season. However, as teams began to adjust to Brad and pay attention to him, his production slipped measurably the last two seasons. In 2000 he had 5 HRs and 37 RBIs while last season those numbers fell to 3 HRs and 17 RBIs. "People began to pitch him differently; paid more attention to him" according to Broghamer." "I think Brad got frustrated and changed some things in how he approached his at bats."
This season also started slow for Brad, but he has been showing signs of turning it around in recent games as he has raised his average to .224 with 3 HRs and 10 RBIs. If he can hit 10-15 home runs and drive in 50 or more, the Iowa Offense will be much better. Carlson, Mattiace, and Jansen all have that potential, they just have to stay healthy and all contribute on a consistent basis. It would be a great story if Brad can get back to the individual success he had in 1999 and the team also has success this season. "I think Brad understands he has to hit the way he has to hit. It helps to have more depth in the lineup with Andy back, so he should see more pitches and have more RBI chances. Brad is a real key to our success. He needs to be able to swing the bat and drive in some runs. He is working hard, so he should have a good year."
C – Brad Husz has done a good job so far this season as a first year starter taking over behind the dish. Although his batting average is only .242 so far, he has knocked in 7 runs to rank 4th on the team. Much like the shortstop position and its emphasis on defense, catchers have to be solid on defense before they even worry about their offense. Brad has moved well behind the plate when blocking balls in the dirt, and his release and throws to catch base stealers have been solid so far this year according to Coach Broghamer. "Brad Husz is a great catch-and-throw guy. Other than the home opener, he has caught very well."
LF – Junior Brian Bucklin is the starter as long as he is consistent at the plate. A very tall player at 6-5, Brian uses his length to cover lots of space on defense. As a freshman, Brian hit .301 with 4 HRs and 23 RBIs, but slumped to .237 with 8 RBIs last season. This season finds his average struggling so far at .217, but his power numbers are coming back with 2 HRs and 6 RBIs. Juniors Lance Guyer and Jim Reid could see time at this position if Bucklin falters.
CF – Sophomore Kyle Thousand is off to a good start in an Iowa uniform as he is hitting .325. He started his career playing for the University of South Dakota, but after one successful season, transferred to Iowa State. He took a medical redshirt at ISU, and after the school dropped baseball, transferred to Iowa. He has one of the better arms on the team according to Coach Broghamer, and has good defensive range. He also brings good speed to the base paths as well.
RF – John Cappellano had three hits on Wednesday against Illinois State to raise his average from .167 to .250. Much like Bucklin, John needs to be more consistent at the plate this season if he wants to play everyday. Like Thousand, he also has a good arm on defense. Guyer and Reid may also see time at this position if Cappellano falters. As a group, the starting outfield has the potential to be better defensively than some of the more recent Iowa outfields because of the range factor. "Our outfield is one of our strengths of our defense. They can cover some ground and are sound fundamentally."
DH – Andy Jansen has had injury problems over the last two years, but is a good hitter when healthy. A third baseman as a freshman, Jansen moved to the outfield as a sophomore, but now only plays a little first base and mostly is a designated hitter after injuries limited him the last two seasons. Last year he missed almost the entire season with a shoulder injury. Coming into his senior campaign, he had a career .320 batting average with 11 HRs and 53 RBIs, but is off to even a better start this year with a .417 batting average, 2 HRs, and 13 RBIs. "Not only does he swing the bat well, but he is a good leader. When he hasn't played in the past or hasn't traveled because he was hurt, that left a hole in our lineup and in leadership."
Last season, the pitching and defense were much stronger than the offense, but after losing Kurt Vitense, the Iowa Defense might not be as consistent this year. To overcome that and make the Big Ten tourney, the Iowa Offense is going to have to be much better than last season. The pitching staff is also going to have to be better and be mentally tougher when and if errors are made on defense. If the hurlers can pitch through the mistakes of a young middle infield and the hitters give the pitchers and defense a big cushion by scoring lots of runs, this team can play stronger than some of the recent editions of Hawkeye Baseball.
Obviously there are a lot of questions surrounding this team. There should be since there hasn't been much success on the Iowa diamond in recent years. The biggest thing that this team has to overcome is the losing environment that has prevails around the dugout. The program has to learn how to win again. They especially need to learn to expect to win and be mentally tough enough to win coming from behind or during close games when the outcome hangs in the balance. The Big Ten is a very balanced league that has good programs at Illinois, Ohio State, and Minnesota, but the Hawks shouldn't be worrying about any other team besides themselves. Some years the only real difference between the 4th place Big Ten team and the 10th place team is a few injuries or confidence from a few breaks during the season. If they can stay consistent and not fade down the stretch, Iowa should be competitive and have a chance at 4th this year. No self-respecting team or program goes into a season hoping for 4th, but that finish would be a nice progressive step for Iowa Baseball in 2002.