Iowa’s Cole McDonald threw an offspeed pitch in the fourth inning against Michigan on April 29, and came out of the game with elbow discomfort. The pitch was actually a fastball, it was his elbow that slowed the pitch down and made it seem like a changeup. It was deja vu for Iowa head coach Rick Heller, who around the same time a year ago lost Friday starter CJ Eldred to a UCL injury that required surgery.
In 2017, Iowa went on to win the Big Ten Tournament without Eldred, making an NCAA Regional for the second time in three years. Since losing McDonald, the Hawkeyes have finished off a series win against the Wolverines and took two-of-three from a top-15 Oklahoma State squad the weekend after.
The success that comes every May for his team must be starting to become deja vu for Heller, as well.
“It’s a priority for us to figure things out in the fall,” Heller said. “We talk about how important it is to play our best baseball down the stretch. It’s just talk at that point, but it sets the tone that we will work hard, we’ll stay in the weight room…We’re either moving forward or moving backward. We need to constantly be pushing forward. It’s not a perfect science, but it’s a part of our program that’s planned out.”
It seems as though Heller has it down to a science. Even with a series loss at Northwestern last weekend, the Hawkeyes still stand a good chance at grabbing an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, barring another series loss against Penn State this coming weekend.
It wasn’t necessarily supposed to go this well for Iowa this season, though. Heller was tasked with replacing Big Ten Player of the Year Jake Adams, an impossible task after Adams reset the Big Ten’s single-season home run mark, and all-conference shortstop Mason McCoy, both sixth-round draft picks. And those were just the guys you fully expected were gone.
Eldred and fellow RHP Nick Gallagher both signed professional contracts after last season, although both had eligibility remaining.
“All those things are so uncontrollable. Visualize this team if we had those guys back,” Heller said. “It’s the same mindset of losing guys to injury. Whoever is here, whoever is put out there, is expected to be successful. The accountability is there on this team, that’s an expectation. You can’t dwell on it, [because] there’s not a whole lot you can do about it.”
Heller is not unlike other college coaches. The more control he can have, the better. Where he can’t control players leaving early in the draft, he can control the players filling their spots through recruiting. Now in his fifth year at Iowa, Heller’s lineup is filled entirely with his guys, instilled with his culture.
That’s a big reason why Iowa has become a contender each and every year.
“We have a culture established. The older guys understand you have to work hard on off days and in the weight room. They know we can’t just try to stay even,” Heller said. “It starts Day 1 when the players arrive. No matter who plays, we’re still going to find a way to get the job done. If somebody goes down, somebody’s prepared to fill in.
“We talk about it quite a bit, from the start of fall all the way through. That way, when someone does go down [or someone leaves], you don’t have that shock. we all know whoever that player that needs to step up might be and what he needs to do, and no one panics.”
There will be no panic this coming weekend for Iowa, although a series sweep of the Nittany Lions would go a long way in convincing the NCAA Selection Committee that the Hawkeyes should be in the tournament. Conference series wins against Michigan, Illinois, and Ohio State make up a strong resume. The non-conference series win against Oklahoma State was another resume booster, and one that wouldn’t have happened without those Big Ten wins.
According to Heller, getting teams to travel to Iowa City has become easier as the team has improved each season. Come May, teams are looking for big wins, especially on the road, as those are worth more to the selection committee. For Oklahoma State, the idea of getting three games on the road against a team with a good RPI like Iowa was enticing.
The same was the case for Heller, with the added bonus of getting games in Stillwater next year. That being said, don’t picture Heller in his office calculating RPIs and scouring the internet for tournament projections depending on whether or not they were to beat the Cowboys, or any other high profile team. He doesn’t really pay attention to that stuff.
“I don’t [pay attention] a whole lot. It’s hard not to because everyone is talking about it, but it really doesn’t matter if you’re not taking care of your business on a daily basis,” he said. “I don’t get caught up in any of that. If we don’t take care of our business, none of that matters. If we play well, and if wins come our way…against one of toughest, if not the toughest, schedules in the Big Ten, I think we’ll be okay.”