A year ago a game against Northwestern provided Iowa with perhaps the high point of Rick Heller's tenure at Iowa -- a resounding win in the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game that gave Iowa their first Big Ten title of any kind in baseball in 27 years and earned them a trip to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years. This year a series of games against Northwestern provided on the low points of the last few years of Iowa baseball, as a bad Wildcats team took two of three from Iowa in a series Iowa could not afford to lose. We're accustomed to Northwestern spoiling things for Iowa in football; now they're spreading their malign influence to baseball as well.
Iowa entered the series off an impressive series win over Oklahoma State that had vaulted them into the NCAA Tournament's Field of 64 in several mock brackets. The goodwill they earned from those wins was almost surely washed away by their wipeout against the Wildcats this weekend. Playing Northwestern and their 200+ RPI was going to hurt Iowa's own RPI no matter what; losing to them sinks it even more. It's currently down to 64, which is likely enough to take them out of the NCAA Tournament field for now. Iowa will need to rebound this week against similarly bad teams in Western Illinois (RPI 278) and Penn State (RPI 239) -- and they'll also need to put together another run in the Big Ten Tournament to try and pick up some RPI-boosting results.
FRIDAY: NORTHWESTERN 7, IOWA 6 (10 INNINGS)
The weekend got off on sour note with an extra innings loss that featured a lot of late scoring. Iowa jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the second off an RBI single from Kyle Crowl, but Northwestern tied it in the fifth off an error from Mitchell Boe before going ahead 2-1 with a Jack Claeys solo home run in the sixth. Iowa's offense answered back in the seventh, though, with Crowl lacing an RBI double to left field to tie the game and Lorenzo Elion hitting an RBI single to give Iowa a 3-2 lead. That lead was short-lived, though, as Ben Dickey tied the game for Northwestern with a solo home run in the bottom of the seventh.
Northwestern went ahead in the eighth off some dismal pitching from Iowa -- they scored two runs off just one hit, thanks to two walks (one intentional), a wild pitch, a hit by pitch, and a balk. Iowa again responded, though, with a Justin Jenkins 2 RBI-single tying the game with two outs in the top of the ninth. Northwestern threatened in the bottom of the ninth -- they had runners on first and second with one out -- but Zach Daniels pitched out of that jam. Iowa again took the lead in the top of the 10th thanks to a Matt Hoeg RBI double, but they left the bases loaded, which proved costly. Grant Leonard replaced Daniels on the mound for Iowa and after a strikeout to start the inning, he gave up a walk and a single before inducing a groundout that moved the runners to second and third. Leonard needed just one more out to end the game and give Iowa a win, but he couldn't get it, giving up a 2-RBI single to Jack Dunn to end the game.
Nick Allgeyer started for Iowa and while he wasn't flawless, he still provided a quality start -- 6.2 IP, 3 runs (two earned), 6 hits, 1 walk, and 4 strikeouts. Nick Nelsen replaced him and gave up a run on two walks while getting one out. Zach Daniels threw two innings and gave up a run on two hits and two walks, while striking out two. Leonard finished the game off, giving up two runs on two hits and a walk while striking out one in 0.2 innings of work. Iowa had three leads in this game, but they weren't able to hold any of them -- the capitulations in the seventh and 10th innings really stung.
Iowa's batters notched six runs on 11 hits in this game, with three batters posting multi-hit games. Kyle Crowl went 2/4 with a double, a run scored, and two RBI, while Matt Hoeg with 2/5 with a double, a run scored, and an RBI (which was very nearly the game-winner). Justin Jenkins also went 2/4 at the plate. Chris Whelan, Robert Neustrom, Lorenzo Elion, Austin Guzzo, and Mitchell Boe recorded Iowa's other hits in the game.
SATURDAY: NORTHWESTERN 4, IOWA 0
Iowa's offense arrived late on Friday, but it never made it to the park on Saturday, as Iowa was shut out for the first time since a 3-0 loss to Minnesota on April 21st and for just the fourth time this season. Not even a weather delay was able to wake up Iowa's bats in this one. Northwestern jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first inning thanks to a 2-RBI single from Connor Lind, then added another RBI single from Lind in the third and a sacrifice fly from Leo Kaplan in the sixth. That was all the scoring in the game, but Northwestern didn't need any more with Iowa's bats unable to do anything.
Iowa managed just four hits all game against Northwestern's Hank Christie, who entered the game with a 5.40 ERA. Half of those hits came from Matt Hoeg, who went 2/4 with a pair of singles. Lorenzo Elion went 1/3 and Mitchell Boe went 1/1 and drew two walks. The first four batters in the Iowa lineup (Whelan, Neustrom, Cropley, and Guzzo) went 0/14 with two strikeouts and one drawn walk. Those guys have been strong hitters for Iowa all season, but when they all go missing in the same game, it makes it very hard for Iowa to do much on offense.
Pitching was a mixed bag for Iowa. Brady Schanuel started and lasted just 2.2 innings, giving up three runs on three hits and two walks, while striking out two, although he probably would have pitched longer if not for the weather delay. Grant Judkins relieved Schanuel and gave up one run on four hits and a walk in 2.1 innings while striking out three. Nick Nelsen did well finishing things off for Iowa, throwing three scoreless and hitless innings, while walking none and striking out three. His performance was definitely the bright spot on an overall very dismal day for Iowa baseball.
SUNDAY: IOWA 10, NORTHWESTERN 7
Iowa's offense finally turned up again on Sunday, scoring a pair of runs in the second inning after a Ben Norman RBI single and a throwing error. Northwestern responded with three runs in the third, but Iowa answered back with a two runs in the third off a Mitchell Boe RBI single and a Kyle Crowl RBI single. That gave Iowa a 4-3 lead they wouldn't relinquish. Iowa extended the lead in the sixth with an RBI groundout from Crowl, then blew the game open in the seventh. Neustrom crushed a solo home run to give Iowa a 6-3 lead before Ben Norman hit a 2-RBI double to make it 8-3. Northwestern got an RBI single in the seventh to make it 8-4 before Hoeg hit a 2-run home run to gave Iowa some more breathing room at 10-4. That extra breathing room was appreciated after Jack Claeys hit a 3-run homer in the ninth to halve Iowa's lead. But Northwestern's comeback attempt ended there and Iowa was able to hold on for a 10-7 win and avoid getting swept by Northwestern.
Iowa's bats were on point in this game, scoring 10 runs on 14 hits and drawing seven walks. Ben Norman had one of his best outings of the year, going 3/5 with a double, a run scored, and an RBI. Matt Hoeg continued his strong weekend by going 2/4 with a home run, a double, three runs scored, and two RBI; for the weekend he went 6/13 with two doubles and a home run. Neustrom went 2/5 with a home run and two runs scored and one RBI. Justin Jenkins went 2/4 with a double and a run scored, while Mitchell Boe went 2/5 with a run scored and an RBI. Chris Whelan, Kyle Crowl, and Tyler Cropley recorded the other hits for Iowa in the game. Every Iowa batter recorded at least one hit except the two men who played DH, Lorenzo Elion and Austin Guzzo, who combined to go 0/4 with one walk drawn.
Jack Dreyer got another start for Iowa and while he wasn't as lights out as he was last week against Oklahoma State, he was still good -- he went five innings and gave up three runs (none earned) on on four hits and two walks, while striking out six. Ben Probst replaced him and gave up one run on four hits in 1.2 innings of work. Cam Baumann started well but eventually got tagged for three runs on three hits and a walk in his two innings of work. Zach Daniels came in to get the final out of the game (after Baumann had given up the home run to make it 10-7) and earned his fifth save of the year.
Iowa has only lost two series this year in Big Ten play -- against league-leading Minnesota... and now against 12th place Northwestern. Iowa sits at 7th in the current Big Ten standings, a half-game behind Indiana in 6th and two games up in the loss column on Maryland in 8th. Those dreams of a top-five finish in the Big Ten aren't looking good after this weekend, but they're still firmly in the Big Ten Tournament field. That's good because after two losses to Northwestern and the subsequent damage that's done to their NCAA Tournament at-large aspirations, it looks very much like they're going to need to do some damage in Omaha in a few weeks.
NEXT: Iowa heads to Macomb, IL to face a not-very-good Western Illinois team (15-26 overall, 9-6 at home), but if this weekend has taught us anything, it's that Iowa shouldn't overlook anyone. They just need to go out and get the W.