All good things come to an end. Unfortunately, that also includes Iowa baseball's thrilling ride over the last few weeks. They won seven of their last ten games in the regular season to lock up a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. Then they won four of five games in the Big Ten Tournament to lock up their first-ever conference tournament title and punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. They even got their NCAA Regional experience off to a hot start by upsetting the host and #1 seed Houston Cougars 6-3 on Friday night. But a narrow 3-2 loss to Texas A&M preceded tonight's game, a weather-delayed back-and-forth thriller with Houston that ended with a 7-5 win for the Cougars and sent Iowa home for the season.
If the story of last night's defeat was one miserable inning, the story of tonight's loss was a series of comebacks that came up short in the end. Iowa was playing catch-up to Houston for most of the night and they just couldn't get over the final hump. After a pair of scoreless innings, Houston took a 1-0 lead in the third off a sacrifice fly. Iowa's bats were stymied by Houston starter Mitch Ullom for the first four innings, but the second time through the lineup they finally managed to do some damage on Ullom. Tyler Cropley hit a stand-up triple and scored on a Grant Judkins RBI single. Matt Hoeg, Ben Norman, and Mitchell Boe hit back-to-back-to-back singles, scoring Judkins and giving Iowa a 2-1 lead. Chris Whelan got plunked, scoring Hoeg. Houston changed pitchers after that and while Iowa had the bases loaded with just one out, neither Mason McCoy nor Jake Adams could add to Iowa's lead.
Iowa's 3-1 lead was short-lived, though, because Houston finally started getting some good hits on Iowa starter Drake Robison, who had been mostly solid through five innings. Houston got four straight hits to start the sixth, including a double, which allowed them to plate three runs and take a 4-3 lead. But Iowa once again responded in the bottom of the sixth, with Robert Neustrom getting a leadoff double and then scoring on an RBI groundout from Judkins. Houston took another lead, 5-4, in the eighth off a Lael Lockhart RBI single. But yet again Iowa had a response, as Jake Adams launched an absolutely towering solo home run to lead off the bottom of the eighth and re-tie the game. The term moonshot gets thrown around a lot with home runs, but it was fully deserved for Adams' bomb.
We even got an absolutely epic bat flip as the icing on the cake. If that was Jake Adams' last at-bat in an Iowa uniform -- and it might very well be, pending the results of the upcoming MLB Draft -- well, holy shit, what a way to go out. He has hit a bunch of absolutely massive homers this year, but I'm not sure any can equal the one he hit tonight.
Unfortunately, Houston had yet another punch after that Iowa counter-punch. Connor Wong followed up Adams' towering blast with a monstrous home run of his own, launching the ball over the wall in dead center field and giving Houston a 6-5 lead. The Cougars tacked on an insurance run to make it 7-5 heading to the bottom of the ninth. Iowa had counter-punches for Houston all night long, but their bag of tricks was empty in the ninth inning. A Ben Norman single was sandwiched between strikeouts from Matt Hoeg and Mitchell Boe and Chris Whelan popped out to end the game. This was a shootout and sadly Houston just had a few more bullets in the chamber than Iowa did.
Every Iowa starter except Whelan got a hit, with Norman leading the team with a pair of hits. Outside of the fifth inning, though, Iowa couldn't string hits together and put together a really big inning -- and even then, they wound up leaving the bases loaded. With an offense as potent as Houston's and a pitching staff running on fumes like Iowa's, the Hawkeyes couldn't afford to waste opportunities at the plate. Robison lasted five innings and got tagged for four runs on six hits and a walk, but most of that damage came in the sixth inning -- he was quite solid for Iowa before that and gave the Hawkeyes a worthy follow-up to his strong outing against Northwestern last Sunday. Iowa's bullpen took over after that and while they had been really solid in the NCAA Regional (no runs allowed through two games) and the Big Ten Tournament, Kyle Shimp and Josh Martsching finally wore down a bit tonight. Shimp gave up a run on a hit and two walks over 2.1 innings, while Martsching allowed two runs on three hits through 1.1 innings. Iowa's bullpen came up big throughout the postseason for Iowa, but they didn't have quite enough to get Iowa across the finish line tonight.
Like last night, this loss was disappointing and a little bit of a bitter pill to swallow -- Iowa was so close in both games and gave quality Houston and Texas A&M teams all they could handle. The Hawkeyes played in one of the most challenging Regionals in the tournament this year and acquitted themselves very well. This ending isn't the ending we wanted -- it would have been wonderful to eliminate Houston and keep this season rolling for at least one more day -- but that shouldn't diminish this team or their success they had this season. This was a great ride -- and we're already excited to see what #Hellerball has in store for us next year.