Big test awaits Iowa out west
(The lights of Las Vegas will be the backdrop of this weekend's marquee series)
Before the season started, Iowa-UNLV wasn’t circled as a weekend series to watch by many people. But as the Hawkeyes heads west to Las Vegas this weekend, plenty of eyes will be on Earl Wilson Stadium, as two teams garnering votes in the most recent USA Today Coaches Poll square off.
Iowa head coach Rick Heller has been tasked with replacing much of the production in his order this year, but the Hawkeyes haven’t skipped a beat.
Despite all that, the Hawkeyes have shot out to a 8-2 start, their best since 2015. On top of that, Heller said his team hasn’t played its best ball yet.
But the Hawkeyes haven’t played anyone the caliber of UNLV thus far, although they might not have expected for their series in Las Vegas to be a marquee matchup this early in the season.
“Things have gone well overall from the start,” he said. “We’re still searching for our identity offensively. We had two really big losses [Jake Adams and Mason McCoy], so we knew we were going to be a different team. We haven’t really hit our stride yet offensively...As a team, our best days are down the road.”
Although Iowa has been without many of its contributors from last year, it did get one key contributor back from an injury, that being Friday starter Nick Allgeyer.
The lefty underwent Tommy John surgery after the 2016 season and missed all of 2017, but is back as the ace of Iowa’s staff. Through three starts (all wins), he’s logged 18.2 innings while serving up an ERA under 1.00.
Allgeyer did good work for the Hawkeyes in 2016 before the injury with a 3.44 ERA in 36.2 innings, but it was mostly out of the bullpen. His three starts this year have tripled the number of career starts he had made at Iowa. With a number of rotation spots up for grabs this year, Allgeyer cementing himself as a reliable arm early in the season does wonders for Heller’s confidence.
The Hawkeye head coach said Allgeyer isn’t unlike the rest of the team, in the fact that he’s not yet at his best. That’s to be expected from a guy returning from major surgery.
“Having Nick on Friday, you know you’re going to get a quality start,” he said. “He’s a tough guy. He’s really going to battle. His command has been solid. Everything that we had hoped for with him coming back has come true so far. But he hasn’t been his best yet.”
Allgeyer will have to deal with a revamped UNLV lineup, one that boasts six guys hitting over .300 and two - Kyle Isbel and Max Smith - hitting over .400 through 13 games.
The Rebels have hit .315 as a team as they have bulldozed their way through their early schedule, sweeping Fresno State and picking up a win against Oregon. That Fresno State team has logged a four-game sweep over Michigan State and three wins against Houston Baptist, and is still receiving poll votes.
On top of the offensive outburst, the Rebels have cut their team ERA in half, from 6.54 a year ago to 3.13 this season.
In the two schools’ first-ever meetings last year, Iowa swept UNLV in Iowa City, though those three games were decided by a total of five runs. That was sort of the theme of UNLV’s season in 2017, Heller pointed out. In total, the Rebels lost 11 games by two runs or less. This season, they have already won five games by two runs or less.
“All of us felt like they [UNLV] were close last year. They could’ve won all three games last year [in Iowa City], and they ended up losing all three,” Heller said. “They’ve got two starting pitchers back, a lot of quality pitchers, and they’ve added talent to that team. They lost a couple hitters, but they’ve got four or five guys back that maybe weren’t their main guys last year...They’re well coached, and they play hard for Coach [Stan] Stolte. They’ve been rolling.”
This series didn’t look like much before the season started. It definitely didn’t look like a matchup that would be between two teams with a combined 19-4 record and NCAA implications on the line.
Both teams now have an opportunity to bolster their resume early in the season against a quality opponent.
The atmosphere will be plenty hot in the desert this weekend.
Spillane leads Illini to hot start -Gavin Good, The Daily Illini
Phillips returns strong from cancer -Walter Villa, D1Baseball.com
Jahn given chance to reset with Ohio State -Colin Gay, The Lantern
What to Watch For
Around the Big Ten, action will to take place where the two opponents are quite familiar with the Big Ten.
Ohio State's two games against Coastal Carolina marks the fourth consecutive weekend the Chanticleers will take on a Big Ten opponent. So far Coastal Carolina is 1-3 against the conference, splitting two games against Illinois, and losing to Indiana and Maryland.
Army is 3-3 against the Big Ten thus far, and has three more games against a conference club. The Scarlet Knights of Rutgers will take on the Black Knights, in a three-game series in Fort Myers.
To keep an eye on for future reference, Penn State's desert opponent, Grand Canyon, will travel to Illinois in April. And Michigan's competition in the Music City, Lipscomb, will travel to West Lafayette in two weeks.
And for good measure, Illinois and Michigan State, after participating in the Dairy Queen Classic, square off for two games in Greenville, South Carolina, as the two do not meet during the conference season.
Taking care of business
More games are starting to pop up on Big Ten campuses. As such, the need to secure victories become more crucial.
This weekend, Indiana hosts Pacific, Minnesota welcomes Creighton, Bryant travels to Maryland, and Nebraska takes on Cal Poly in Lincoln. The four are teams that figure to be in the hunt for a regional berth, a group that needs to make sure they take care of business this weekend.
Each of the four Big Ten teams should be viewed as the favorite in their respective series. Wins will not only push them towards the magical 40-win mark, but they avoid the costly home loss which is weighted in the RPI formula. None of the four opponents figure to give the respective Big Ten club a boost in strength of schedule, so it is important they control the portion of the RPI formula they can control: winning. For the Big Ten to continue to be a three, four, five, potential six-bid conference, these weekends are just as important as weekends like last week, where Indiana took down San Diego, Illinois swept through the Dairy Queen Classic and Ohio State knocked off a ranked Southern Miss club.
Heavy workload ahead
A handful of Big Ten universities are set to begin spring break, meaning heavy workloads are on deck for a few baseball teams. Here's a look at is set to start a week of baseball, baseball, and more baseball.
Indiana, Minnesota, and Purdue- Eight games over the next 10 days.
Nebraska- Nine games over 11 days.
Ohio State- Nine games over the next 10.
By the numbers
.994- Illinois leads the Big Ten, and sits second in the nation, with a .994 fielding percentage. In 340 chances, the Illini have committed only two errors.
1.000- Purdue's Jacson McGowan leads the Big Ten with a 1.000 slugging percentage, meaning the junior first baseman has as many total bases on the season as official at-bats: 38. McGowan ranks in the top three in: average, on-base percentage, slugging, home runs, RBI, and total bases.
14- Iowa's Big Ten-leading 2.73 ERA is a result of holding the opposition to just 14 extra-base hits on the year. By comparison, every other Big Ten team has surrendered at least 14 doubles.