IOWA CITY – Rick Heller has spent six seasons building a culture of teamwork and toughness within the Iowa baseball program.
Both will be put to the test this week.
Losses in the final two games of a three-game series with Michigan State have left the Hawkeyes with no margin for error if they hope to reach the NCAA tourney for the third time in the last five seasons.
Sunday’s 7-5 setback to the Spartans was particularly costly, a second straight setback to a team with an RPI of over 150 handed Iowa its first loss in a weekend series since dropping three straight at Indiana to open the Big Ten season.
“It hurts, for sure," Heller said, studying a box score that didn’t add up to the way Iowa had been playing.
The series loss was the first in six weeks for the Hawkeyes and followed taking two-of-three games from a ranked Cal-Irvine team a week earlier, wins that allowed Iowa to climb into the 24th spot in this week’s D1baseball.com poll, the program’s first top-25 ranking in four seasons.
The Hawkeyes had earned that spot, reaching the 30-win mark for the season for unprecedented sixth straight season with a win Friday night over the Spartans.
A team that had survived the loss of two of its projected top pitchers, starter Jack Dreyer and reliever Ben Probst, seemingly had momentum on its side after moving to 30-17 on this season and having won 12 of its last 16 Big Ten games.
Even six innings into Sunday’s game, the Hawkeyes were playing their game, riding the arm of starter Grant Judkins to a 4-1 lead that didn’t last.
“They executed. That’s all they did,’’ said reliever Trace Hoffman, who struggled as Michigan State put five runs on the board in the seventh.
With a Tuesday road game at Western Illinois and a three-game series at Maryland to close the regular-season schedule, the Spartans rally has left Iowa in a win now or win-it-all-in-Omaha at the Big Ten tourney predicament.
That’s assuming the Hawkeyes get to Omaha, which is not guaranteed after Iowa fell from third to sixth in the Big Ten standings with the weekend’s results.
“There’s really no other option,’’ Hoffman said. “I know these guys and we’re going to respond. We’re going to give it everything we can to make a push here at the end of the season.’’
Now 30-19 and 12-9 in league play after falling from third to sixth place in the Big Ten standings over the week, that’s what it will take.
“If we can go out and get hot here, we’ve got four more to play, if we play well and play well in the conference tournament, if we can get in, we can do some damage,’’ Heller said. “But yeah, this definitely hurt.’’
Heller said his team has a “few things to clean up’’ this week if it hopes to play its way into a position to reignite its postseason possibilities.
“We didn’t play poorly. We just ran into a team that is playing super hot right now (winning its last three series) and we just got beat,’’ Heller said, liking what he saw from Judkins and Iowa’s offense through six innings.
“We had everything right where we wanted it to be. We had our guys in place. We just didn’t get it done.’’
That can’t happen again or Iowa knows where it will be in early June, on the outside looking in at the NCAA for a second straight year.