Fall Notes: Iowa

Program at a glance

Head coach: Rick Heller, sixth year

2018 record: 33-20 overall, 13-9 Big Ten (sixth)

Key departures: LHP Nick Allgeyer (97 IP, 2.41 ERA, 95 SO, .235 BAA), C Tyler Cropley (.342 AVG/.449 OBP, .578 SLG, 20 2B, 9 HR), RHP Zach Daniels (45.2, 2.56, 49, .200), OF Robert Neustrom (.311/.386/.538, 15 2B, 11 HR)

Key returners: Sr. 2B Mitchell Boe (.266/.352/.351, 10 2B), Jr. SS Lorenzo Elion (.275/.303/.352), SO. LHP Jack Dreyer (31.2 IP, 3.69, 42 SO, .224 BAA), Sr. RHP Cole McDonald (55.2, 3.23, 52, .249, Sr. OF Chris Whelan (.308/.403/.410)

Notable newcomers: INF Izaya Fullard, C Austin Martin, OF Connor McCaffery, 

2018 in review

Sometimes the numbers just don’t add up as they should. If selection into the NCAA Tournament rested solely on the eye-test, it’s hard to argue Iowa didn’t deserve an appearance in a third regional in four years. Over ther 53 games, the Hawkeyes captured weekend series against Illinois, Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma State, splitting an abbreviated two-game set against Indiana. The Buckeyes, Cowboys and Hoosier were each among the 64 participating in a regional, with both the Illini and Wolverines were ranked prior to taking on Iowa.

But the end-of-season RPI calculations weren’t in Iowa’s favor, with a final ranking of 77, and thus leaving Iowa at home the first weekend of June.

That a 33-20 campaign could qualify as a disappointing season speaks to the change that has taken place in Iowa City under Rick Heller. While it’s going on 45 years since the Hawkeyes last won the Big Ten, the 2018 season, Iowa has recorded a winning since in each of the last four Big Ten slates, a feat accomplished only once in the six years preceding Heller’s arrival. Key to Iowa’s sustaining a level of success last seen in the 1970s is the ability to replace key players year over year.

Last year’s middle-of-the-order duo of Tyler Cropley and Robert Neustrom stepped into the roles of offensive leaders after the departures of lineup anchors Jake Adams and Mason McCoy. The later tandem helped fill voids created in the departure of Joel Booker and Nick Roscetti, just as they emerged after Jake Mangler and Eric Toole graduated from the program.

However, a key difference in Iowa’s 2018 outfit compared to years past was the players surrounding their standout bats. An elbow injury limited outfielder Chris Whelan, the 2017 Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, to just 38 games. He joined Cropley and Neustrom as the only Hawkeyes with a .300 or batter average.

But where the lineup depth may not have been there, Iowa’s offensive was complimented by a strong pitching staff. On the mound, the Iowa pitching staff continued to put together another quietly effective season. With a 4.07 team ERA, the Hawkeyes owned the Big Ten’s fifth-best pitching unit, leading the conference with 499 strikeouts. Leading the men on the mound, All-Big Ten first-team selection Nick Allgeyer provided the Hawkeyes with a true ace, finishing fourth in the Big Ten in ERA and innings pitched, second in strikeouts. Cole McDonald gave Heller a quality second starter. And d converted infielder Zach Daniels closed his career in Iowa City with a banner season at the back of the bullpen, holding opponents to 13 earned runs in 45.2 relief innings, striking out more than a batter per inning.

All in all, Iowa was a solid team in 2018, a team capable of repeatedly beating very good teams, but a slight scuffle in mid-March and just one run over 19 innings in the Big Ten Tournament kept the math of the RPI from working in their favor.

Fall notes

With no player outside of Cropley, Neustrom and Whelan batting above .275, there isn’t an obvious player that jumps out to stand alongside Whelan as the primary offensive threats of the Hawkeyes. That believes jives with what Heller saw from this club this fall.

“There’s not one marquee guy to hand your hate on like years past,” the sixth-year head coach said. “But top to bottom we’re more balanced.”

There were ample opportunities for players to step into bigger or leading roles this fall. While Cropley and Neustrom were concluding their first professional seasons, Whelan was sidelined with a broken shoulder blade, suffered in the final game of the Prospect League’s summer season. The program also parted ways with returning senior shortstop Kyle Crowl. 

The absence of key contributors and multiple vacancies to fill created a competitive environment, where the culture that has been established over the last years fostered a more completeness of a team, each player doing their part to create a greater whole.

“New guys got reps and everyone bought in,” Heller said, adding there may not be one player that reaches double digits in home runs, but saw six or seven players capable of hitting five or so. The Hawkeyes repeatedly working on hit-and-run and first-to-third situations this fall, hoping to give an offensive absent a big bat like Adams, an offense that will be more doubles and on-base oriented, capable of putting pressure on the opposing staff 1-9.

But there is one wild card that may change Iowa’s ability to have a true thumper: outfielder Connor McCaffery. A two-sport athlete at Iowa, also on the Hawkeyes basketball team that his father coaches, McCaffery is a redshirt freshman who did not play last year after an ankle injury, mononucleosis, severe strep throat and a late-December tonsillectomy all struck the outfielder. This fall,  the 6’6, 205-pound McCaffery showed the ability to hit the ball with authority and a good bit of speed. Heller said if the season were to start today, McCaffery would be the team’s three-hole hitter. It’s to be determined when the baseball Hawkeyes will get to use McCaffery this spring with the overlap of his two seasons.

Heller mentioned Izaya Fullard and Austin Martin as two players capable of being the next two in a long line of transfers who have immediate impacts. Fullard, a transfer from Kirkwood Community College, lead the country in hitting with a .470 average from the Division II JUCO. Martin will look to fill the void behind the plate with Fullard joining Mitchel Boe and Lorenzo Elion as returning infielders to be key contributors around the horn.

On the mound, McDonald is a guy that Heller says he and his staff are comfortable slotting into the Friday role. Health will be key to McDonald, last year’s workload of 55.2 innings is the most innings he’s pitched in three years at Iowa, battling arm injuries off and on. Behind him, Jack Dreyer and Grant Judkins, a pair of solid key relievers look to fill out the rotation with sophomore Cam Baumann another hurler in the mix. Where Heller believes the starting pitching and its depth will be a key strength, the back of the bullpen is an unknown.

For the first time in his Iowa tenure, there isn’t an established closer at the back of the bullpen. Although Daniels recorded just five saves last year, he was a steady arm that could go multiple innings to close a game, evident by his 6-2 record. Nick Nelsen recorded three saves and carried a 3.60 ERA, but he graduated from the program.

While there may not be a player ready to jump into the closer’s role at the start of November, as players move into the individual and group practice part of the offseason, the track record of player development has Heller confident the team will be where they need to. The Hawkeyes will be tested early in 2019, with their return trip to Stillwater, to complete the home-and-home series with Oklahoma State, kicking off March.

“Here at Iowa, player development is key to success,” Heller said. “We believe every player will reach their potential with buy-in and attitude.”

Those elements where there this fall according to Heller, capping the type of offseason needed to have everything fall in place for another regional run.

Iowa’s McDonald Tosses No-Hitter in USA Win

Taipei, Taiwan —  Junior starting pitcher Cole McDonald tossed a no-hitter to lead USA Team to an 8-0 victory over the Czech Republic on Friday night in a Super Round game at Tianmu Stadium. Iowa baseball hasn’t had a no-hitter since 1965, which was a perfect game by Bob Schauenberg against Central College.

McDonald, a New Hampton, Iowa, native, faced two batters over the minimum and he needed just 97 pitches to complete the gem. The right-hander walked two batters in the first before retiring 11 straight batters from the first to the fifth inning.

Following a sixth inning USA error, McDonald sat down 10 straight before issuing a one-out walk in the ninth. He got Arnost Dubovy to hit into a game-ending 6-4-3 double play to close it out. McDonald had seven strikeouts.

USA’s offense spotted McDonald with early run support with a six-run first inning. Senior Tyler Cropley had a two-run double in the inning and USA was the beneficiary of three Czech errors.

QUOTING USA TEAM HEAD COACH RICK HELLER

When did you know no-hitter was possible?
“It was early. After the first inning he had a couple of walks and worked out of it. He was pounding the zone, he was at the knees all night long and his breaking ball and change-up were good. He kept them off stride all night. He got a lot of ground balls and our defense was good behind him. It was exactly what we needed.”

“Cole went out and grew a lot. That’s what we needed with playing Korea tomorrow. We’ll be able to mix-and-match; we didn’t have to use anyone out of the bullpen and we will still have everybody fresh for the medal round games starting Monday. It was a tremendous, amazing performance by Cole and it was a great atmosphere and crowd.”

QUOTING USA TEAM

Starting pitcher Cole McDonald
“It’s a surreal feeling. I knew it was going the whole time, I just tried to stay even-keeled and not make it a big deal and keep on making pitches. I got lucky on a few pitches, but that happens when you throw one.”

On going out for the ninth
“I wasn’t nervous, I was just trying to stay positive. Before I went out there, I was like “I need to make the three outs. They aren’t going to touch me, they haven’t been all game.” I didn’t want to change anything I did the previous eight innings.”

On what made him effective
“All my pitches were working. I had run on my fastball, my slider was breaking like it has been all summer, and I threw a change-up when I had to on a few pitches.”

USA TEAM NOTABLES
– USA sent 11 batters to the plate in a six-run first inning, forcing Czech Republic’s Tomas Duffek to throw 41 pitches. Czech’s defense committed three errors in the frame.
– The Czechs had four errors in the game; three USA runs were unearned.
– Seven of USA’s nine starters had at least one hit in the game and eight different players scored runs.
– Cropley was 3-for-3 with two RBIs and one run and reached base safely in all five plate appearances. Junior Chris Whelan finished 1-for-3 with two RBIs.

UP NEXT
USA will square off against Korea on Friday at 10 p.m. (CT) at Tianmu Stadium. The Koreans, the second seed in Pool A, fell to Group B’s top-seeded Japan, 2-1, on Friday morning.

Following the game against Korea, the brackets will be seeded one through four for the semifinal rounds.

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