Bring on the Gophers!
The Hawks go into this weekend with a chance to make the Big Ten tourney at 10-13 in league action, but their hopes of making a late push depend on their success against the conference leading Gophers.
Minnesota has been a traditional Big Ten baseball power over the last 40 years, so in a historical perspective it isn't a surprise that they are in first place right now. However, the Gophers really struggled to replace key members of last season's team, and started this season 1-9 against a good preseason schedule. They won games in the preseason against top teams like Alabama and Nebraska, but were pounded by Miami, Tennessee (21-2), Mankato State, twice by Nebraska, and were swept by Northern Iowa. Luke Appert and Jason Kennedy both had good offensive starts for the U of M lineup, but the bottom part of the order seemed weak by Minnesota standards.
The Gophers looked average at the start of the Big Ten season, but low and behold, they are now 14-6 in league play. Although they are only 26-20 overall, their record since the 1-9 start has been pretty good. They seem to be playing their best baseball right now as they have swept Indiana and Purdue in the last two weeks. Appert leads the team with a .390 batting average and has 11 HRs and 36 RBIs, but Kennedy has been the heart of the offensive lineup. Although his average has slumped to .342 in recent weeks, Kennedy has been the big hitter in the lineup with 11 HRs and 55 RBIs. The reason the team has really taken off recently is that other hitters are now stepping up and contributing. Scott Howard struggled early, but the veteran is now hitting .348 with 23 RBIs. Overall, the Gophers have six players with 23 or more RBIs.
Iowa needs to be playing at their best this weekend, and there is little reason to think that they won't be. The Hawks have won or split their Big Ten series the last three weeks, and are 21-24-1 overall this season. The starting pitching will set the tone for the Hawkeye Nine, and the starting pitching has been pretty solid as of the last few weeks. Reed Pawelk will get his traditional Friday start on the mound, while Matt Hasz, Cory Hollenhorst, and Chris Maliszewski will probably start the other three contests. Hollenhorst and Maliszewski have only been starting the last few weeks, but both have been outstanding at times. Cory took a no-hitter into the sixth against Northwestern on Saturday, only to lose 1-0 on a homerun, while Chris picked up the win on Sunday.
Since a seven-game winning streak was snapped two weeks ago, the Hawkeye bats have been streaky. After losing the opener to the Wildcats last Friday by the score of 7-3, the bats erupted for 18 hits in a 12-9 win Saturday in the first game of the doubleheader. LF Andy Jansen, CF Kyle Thousand, SS Jeff Gremley, and 2B Chris Groth all had three hits in the game, while DH Brian Bucklin erupted from a long slump by getting two hits. Thousand continued his tear at the plate with three RBIs, while Gremley and Groth each had two.
As soon as the bats looked alive, they were shut down in the 1-0 loss in the second part of the doubleheader. However, the offense responded on Sunday with a 9-6 win that earned a series split with the Wildcats. In the win on Sunday, the usual suspects did the damage as Jansen, 3B Ian Mattiace, 1B Brad Carlson, and Thousand combined for eight hits and six RBIs. Carlson hit his tenth homerun of the season, while Mattiace stole two bases to give him seventeen this year. Carlson is now hitting .281 with 10 HRs and 42 RBIs, while Mattiace is hitting .361 with 7 HRs and 33 RBIs. Jansen is hitting .355 with 5 HRs and 26 RBIs, and Thousand is hitting .310 with 4 HRs and 25 RBIs.
Thousand has done much of his offensive damage in the last two weeks, and it seems to be somewhat contagious. Chris Growth was hitting under .200 a few weeks ago, but after going on a tear over the last ten days has his average up to .307. Besides having three hits in the first game on Saturday, he also had three hits and two RBIs on Sunday. At one point he was seeing time on a limited basis because his glove was better than fellow second baseman Andy Cox; now he is hitting like one of the best hitters on the team. While most of his teammates struggled against UW-Milwaukee on Tuesday, Chris went a combined 5-7 in the doubleheader. "He got off to a tough start," said Head Coach Scott Broghamer, "but he stayed with it and worked hard, and now things are falling into place for him. He has been pretty solid all season defensively, but his bat has been hot for 2 to 3 weeks now. He is hitting the ball hard."
Brian Bucklin began the season as a starting outfielder, but a poor start at the plate relegated him to pinch running appearances. Although he is still hitting only .213, the coaches have liked his improvement in practice and games to the point where he has been starting in the designated hitter role in recent contests. He hit a two-run homer in his only plate appearance in the first game on Tuesday, and was 4-11 with two homeruns against Northwestern this weekend. "Brian had a good weekend and seems to be coming on," said Broghamer. "It's good to find another bat from that side of the plate."
Iowa is still tied for eighth place in the conference heading into this weekend, but the Big Ten has seldom looked as bunched as it currently is. After Minnesota at 14-6 and Ohio State at 15-8, the other eight teams in the league either have 10 or 11 wins. If the Hawks play very well this weekend, they could find themselves in third place on Monday. If they play poorly, they might be in last with no chance of post-season play. Even though they have another conference series next weekend, if Iowa cannot win at least two games against Minnesota, the next weekend may not matter. "No matter what happens around the conference," said Broghamer; "our focus is on the Gophers. There are a lot of things we could get caught up in at this time of the year, but we want to solve everything with our play on the field. We need to take care of our own business."