Not only did they win all three games with no margin for error, but they eliminated the Illini from postseason play after Northwestern won against Indiana on Sunday.
The Hawkeyes qualified for the Big Ten tourney for the first time since they won the Big Ten regular season title in 1990. The 1990 team was 22-6 in league play and had five players make first-team all-Big Ten. This year's version of Hawkeye Baseball is not as talented or successful, but it is still a good story after how the program slumped during the last five seasons. Iowa Baseball had finished near or at the bottom of the league in each of those seasons, and in each season the team seemed to fade dramatically down the final stretch of games. This season started just as poorly as any of the previous five, but unlike the previous seasons, this team got better as the season went on. After losing the Friday opener at Purdue during the middle of the season, the Hawks took the last three games of the series to get back into the conference race at 6-10. That marked the beginning of a five-week stretch that saw Iowa at least split the series with each of their Big Ten opponents.
Splitting a four-game set on the road last week against league champion Minnesota was a tremendous boost, but the Illinois series was more satisfying. Although they lost 5-4 in eleven innings to Illinois ace pitcher Andy Dickinson on Friday, the team rallied from a 4-2 deficit in the ninth inning to send the game into extra frames. After coming so close and losing, the team could have mailed it in and quit, but they didn't. Illinois also knew that they had to win at least two games to assure themselves of making the Big Ten tourney, but the Hawks wouldn't let that happen.
After giving up a run in the top of the first the next day, the Iowa Offense responded in the bottom half of the inning by scoring five runs. After adding another run in the second, the Hawkeye pitchers and defense made the lead runs hold up in the 6-4 win. Starter Matt Hasz earned his fifth win of the season, while the bullpen came through over the last four innings. Nick Jensen allowed no hits in two and one-third innings of relief, and Dyson Miguel recorded the final two outs for his fifth save of the season. On the offensive side, CF Kyle Thousand was 2-2 with 2 RBIs, while SS Jeff Gremley had a big two-run double in the first inning.
Iowa swept the Saturday doubleheader with an 8-5 win that once again saw the Iowa Offense get going quickly as they scored four runs in the first inning. After Illinois scored three runs in the top of the second, Iowa answered with three runs in the bottom of the third and one more in the fourth to secure the win. LF Andy Jansen, DH Kyle Thousand, and RF John Paul Cappellano each drove in a run, but 1B Brad Carlson and CF Brian Bucklin led the attack. Bucklin was 2-2 with a double, a walk, a stolen base, and 3 RBIs, while Carlson was 2-4 with 2 RBIs. One of Brad's hits was his 14th homerun of the season, and the 43rd of his Iowa career. That ties him with former Hawkeye Brian Mitchell for the all-time Iowa career record. Starting pitcher Cory Hollenhorst rebounded from a bad outing against Minnesota the week before to get the complete game win. He gave up four earned runs on three hits in seven innings.
Iowa once again needed to win on Sunday to secure a spot in the tourney, and they did just that in a 5-3 decision. 3B Ian Mattiace, 2B Chris Groth, and Bucklin all had three hits, while Jansen, Thousand, and Gremley each drove in a run. Bucklin drove in two runs. Converted reliever Chris Maliszewski also rebounded from a rough performance against Minnesota to record his fourth win of the year. Chris gave up four hits and three runs in seven and one-third innings, while striking out six batters. Dyson Miguel once again responded in his relief role as he recorded his sixth save of the season.
The Hawks are now 26-27-1 overall and 15-16 in the final Big Ten standings. They earned the #5 seed in the tourney, and take on #4 seed Indiana at noon on Wednesday at the University of Minnesota campus. The Hoosiers are 34-18 overall, but finished only one game ahead of Iowa in the conference race at 15-14. IU did take three of four games from the Hawks early in the season, but Iowa erupted for 17 runs in the series finale. Ian Mattiace drove in eight runs for Iowa in that game.
The Hoosiers have the best offensive numbers in the conference, and their RBI totals are gaudy. Vasili Spanos is hitting .374 with 16 HRs and 62 RBIs, while Eric Blakely is hitting .332 with 9 HRs and 59 RBIs. Kennard Jones is hitting .411 with 22 SBs and 30 RBIs, while three other Hoosiers have more than 37 RBIs. IU has two main starting pitchers; Zach Otte is 7-3 with a 2.19 ERA and Nick Vitielliss is 7-1 with a 3.58 ERA. Both pitchers have given up fewer hits than innings pitched.
Iowa is led offensively by Andy Jansen, Ian Mattiace, and Brad Carlson. Jansen leads the team in batting average at .353 and has 12 doubles, 5 homeruns, and 31 RBIs. Mattiace is hitting .350 and has 15 doubles, 7 homeruns, 19 stolen bases, and 36 RBIs. Carlson is only hitting .280, but has 14 doubles, 14 homeruns, and 49 RBIs. Kyle Thousand is hitting .318 with 12 doubles, 8 triples, 4 homeruns, and 29 RBIs, while Chris Groth has come out of nowhere to hit .327 with 8 doubles and 18 RBIs.
Reed Pawelk, Matt Hasz, and Cory Hollenhorst will probably be the first three starters to see mound action, but Chris Maliszewski, Dyson Miguel, Nick Jensen, and Jeff Gilmore might all be asked to contribute in some form. It will be interesting to see how the Iowa coaches decide to play the games on Friday and Saturday if they can get that far. Would they bring someone like Reed back on short rest to pitch again?
The tourney is double elimination, and Iowa will play on Thursday no matter what the outcome of the Wednesday game is. No matter who they play, all the games have the potential to be close and unpredictable. If they can get on a run, they have a chance to win the whole thing, as this has to be the most evenly matched Big Ten tourney in years. Minnesota should be favored somewhat because they won the regular season and are hosting, but Ohio State and Michigan State look just as strong if not stronger than the Gophers. Here are quick bios on the other teams besides Indiana in the tourney:
Minnesota – The Gophers won the regular season title (30-24 overall, 18-10 in the Big Ten), and are hosting the event. C.J. Woodrow is their best pitcher statistically at 8-4 with a 3.67 ERA, however, he has been throwing during the seven-inning Saturday games during league play rather than the nine-inning games on Fridays and Sundays. The pitching staff is not as dominant as usual, but six hitters have 24 or more RBIs. Scott Welch is a good defensive shortstop and is hitting .346 with 33 RBIs, while Scott Howard anchors the outfield defense and is hitting .337 with 26 RBIs. Jason Kennedy is a good all-around player with a strong throwing arm to go with 12 HRs and 57 RBIs, while Luke Appert is the most dangerous hitter on the squad. Luke is hitting .370 with 13 HRs and 38 RBIs. Iowa was 2-2 against the Gophers in the regular season.
Ohio State – #2 seed Ohio State (33-18-1 overall, 18-11 in the Big Ten) is the most dangerous opponent in the tourney because they have the best pitching staff. Nate Smith is 6-0 with a 2.54 ERA, while Scott Lewis is 6-2 with a 2.80 ERA. Josh Newman is 8-5 with a 3.73 ERA, while standout E.J. Laratta has struggled somewhat this year in going 7-4 with a 5.16 ERA. Offensively, this isn't the traditionally powerful OSU batting order, but they do have six hitters with 30 or more RBIs. Christian Snavely is hitting .383 with 8 HRs and 39 RBIs, while Doug Deeds is also hitting .383 with 11 HRs and 43 RBIs. Nick Swisher is hitting .367 with 8 HRs and 47 RBIs. Iowa lost three of four games in Iowa City to OSU early in the season.
Michigan State – The Spartans (36-17 overall, 16-12 in the Big Ten) are a solid #3 seed after putting up outstanding offensive numbers most of the season. They hit 88 team homeruns and allowed the opposition only 33. They also scored 429 runs while giving up 253. Charlie Brown plays for MSU, and hit .404, while Chris McCuiston hit .396 with 15 HRs and 67 RBIs. Rob Malek hit .394 with 13 HRs and 62 RBIs. In all, four Spartans hit ten or more homeruns and had 42 or more RBIs. Although the bad weather probably hurt their performance, Iowa took two of three games from MSU earlier in the season (W 14-3, W 4-3, L 3-0) and held the Spartan Offense down. If they meet this week, it might be a more difficult task.
Northwestern – The Wildcats (24-27 overall, 14-15 in the Big Ten) are the #6 seed even though they and Illinois have the same conference record. Unlike the other teams in the tourney, NU does not have a hitter with ten homeruns or 30 RBIs. In fact, they only have one hitter in the regular lineup that is hitting over .300. However, they do have five hitters with 20 or more RBIs, and have solid pitching. Ryan Bos is the best of the Wildcat pitchers, and although he only has a 4-6 record, he has a 2.59 ERA. Ryan has only given up 63 hits in 76 innings. Iowa split the four-game set with NU a few weeks ago, winning 12-9 and 9-6 while losing 7-3 and 1-0.