By Lars Headington
Finally out of the bubble and playing out on a real field and under the sun for the first time since November, Iowa Hawkeye baseball was, perhaps predictably, working-out some kinks as they opened 2011 regular season play at the third annual Big Ten/Big East Challenge over the weekend.
The event, held in the St. Petersburg/Clearwater, Florida area hosted eight teams from both conferences for three inter-conference games apiece.The Iowa Hawkeyes drew West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Seton Hall. The Hawks had lost to West Virginia in last year’s Challenge, but defeated Rutgers and Villanova to finish 2-1. This go-round wouldn’t end on a high-note as Iowa chalked-up three straight losses. This proved detrimental to the Big Ten cause as the conference fell 10-14 to the Big East in weekend victories, and to 1-2 overall in the event’s history.
Here’s how it went down for Iowa:
Iowa – 0, West Virginia – 5:
On Friday, junior – and Hawkeye ace – Jared Hippen, was stung for five doubles and two home runs in the first three innings, allowing five runs. Mountaineer masher Grant Buckner caused most of the damage, belting both homers and knocking-in three of the runs.
But Hippen would regain command and hold the Mountaineers scoreless over the next three innings. Senior Zach Kenyon finished the game for the Hawkeyes with two scoreless innings of his own.
Still, the Hawkeye bats couldn’t dent the early deficit, amassing just four total hits on the day. Senior Kurt Lee doubled with two out in the sixth to break West Virgina starter Jonathan Jones’ perfect-game bid. Lee would later add another double, as would sophomore Dan Sheppard. Senior Zach McCool would add a ninth-inning single. Additionally, no Hawk drew a walk in a forgettable opening-day for Iowa baseball.
Pittsburgh – 3, Iowa – 2 (11):
Saturday’s match-up against Pittsburgh would find the Hawk bats a little more lively, but would end in a frustrating 3-2 loss in eleven innings. Iowa collected ten hits, four walks and stole three bases, but collected no extra-base hits and left eleven runners on base.
Head Coach Jack Dahm flipped McCool into the lead-off spot and put Willis in at the two-hole. Willis responded going 3-5 day with a run scored. The Hawkeyes scored in the first and sixth innings to build a two-run lead. Junior Nick Brown authored six scoreless innings, but left in the seventh with two men on. Junior reliever Patrick Lala, making his first career appearance for Iowa, failed to prevent the prowling Panthers from scoring to tie the game.
Coming-in for Lala with two-outs in the eighth, senior closer Kevin Lee saw his only action of the weekend but logged 2.1 scoreless innings with four strike-outs.
In the eleventh sophomore Ricky Sandquist took the mound but surrendered a walk and two hits – as well as the go-ahead run.
Seton Hall – 2, Iowa – 0:
Sophomore Matt Dermody made the Sunday start and gave the Hawks a solid outing, going five innings while allowing two runs on two walks and four hits. In four innings of relief, junior transfer Tim Fangman was even better, shutting-out the Pirates and allowing just three hits and no walks in his Iowa debut.
But once again the Iowa bats were lifeless for five innings. Iowa managed just two hits on the day, singles both collected by the middle-infielders Carling and Lee.
What went wrong:
Simply put, the bats were dead. After suffering just one shut-out last season – at the hands of pitching-heavy Texas – Iowa managed the feat twice in this year’s opening weekend. How did this happen? The Hawks were hitless through five innings in games one and three. In game two, they collected four walks and 10 hits, but no extra-base knocks. Even stealing three bases, they only manufactured two runs in that game. The only Hawkeye extra base hits came late in the first game with no one on. Kurt Lee – who usually hits eighth or ninth – was responsible for two of them. So where was the top of the line-up at? Hitters one through five were 9 for 57 with two runs scored, an RBI and only Sheppard’s double in the extra-base column.
It’s still early, but the Hawkeyes miss table-setter Kurtis Muller at the top of the order. Iowa number ones went hitless for Iowa this weekend. Willis is penciled –in to that part of the order, but he went 3-5 hitting in the two-hole in game two. It may be that Willis – who has the bat – doesn’t have the lead-off mentality, or just hasn’t developed it yet. Dahm’s game-two switch suggests that the coaching-staff is not inclined to be overly patient with him. But if he can hit singles in the two-hole regularly, I say give the job to someone else.
The good to take away:
Top Bat: Senior, Kurt Lee – 3 for 7, 2 doubles, 1 run scored
Top Arm: Senior, Kevin Lee – 2.1 IP, 4 K, 2 H, 1 BB, 0 R
Hawkeye pitching surrendered just ten runs over the three games. Considering that last year’s 30-28 team carried a staff ERA just under 6.00, a 3.33 ERA out of the gate is a good start – and if maintained should translate into team wins once the hitting comes around. And there’s reason to believe it will. The Hawks averaged 6.3 runs a game. McCool and McQuillan are Iowa’s top returning bats from that team, both posting .344 batting averages in 2010. Their roles are the same this season, so expect them to bounce-back from their combined four-hit, all singles weekend.
After allowing three for four steal attempts in game two, senior catcher Tyson Blaser rebounded to throw-out three runners in game three, this on his third-straight day behind the plate. Expect him to be Mr. Durable behind the plate again as he was last year making 48 starts behind the dish.
The frosh are in the mix. To say that the team has fresh talent ready to play speaks to improved depth on the Iowa roster. For that reason, expect much fluidity in the lineup, at least early-on. In fact, McQuillan was the only Hawk to keep his spot in the order (third) over all three games.
Freshman Kasey Carling seems to have supplanted incumbent Kurt Lee at short-stop, at least early on. Carling started games two and three at short while Lee came off the bench in game two and started at second, pushing McQuillan to DH and Sheppard to the bench. Freshmen Taylor Zeutenhorst and Kyle Haen also received starts in game three at the corner outfield spots, though neither collected their first Hawkeye hits.
The Hawkeyes will hit the road again next weekend, February 26-28, and this time their destination is Lawrence, Kansas where they will play four games. The Hawks will play Saint Louis on Friday, then again as the front of a Saturday double-header with Kansas as the night cap. Sunday will pit Iowa against Southern Utah. Look for starts again from Hippen, Brown and Dermody – as well as from senior Zach Kenyon.
Look for the Iowa arms to maintain and the bats to regroup. Expect at least a 2-2 trip. This is a team that should show again in the end-of-season Big Ten tournament.
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