Iowa baseball’s Whelan returns from surgery

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Iowa baseball’s Whelan returns from surgery

Iowa's Chris Whelan bats during game one of the Iowa-Penn State baseball series at Duane Banks Field on Friday, April 28, 2017. The Hawkeyes swept the rain delayed, late night double header, 4-2 and 8-2, respectively. (The Daily Iowan/Lily Smith)

Iowa's Chris Whelan bats during game one of the Iowa-Penn State baseball series at Duane Banks Field on Friday, April 28, 2017. The Hawkeyes swept the rain delayed, late night double header, 4-2 and 8-2, respectively. (The Daily Iowan/Lily Smith)

The Daily Iowan; Photos by Lily

Iowa's Chris Whelan bats during game one of the Iowa-Penn State baseball series at Duane Banks Field on Friday, April 28, 2017. The Hawkeyes swept the rain delayed, late night double header, 4-2 and 8-2, respectively. (The Daily Iowan/Lily Smith)

The Daily Iowan; Photos by Lily

The Daily Iowan; Photos by Lily

Iowa's Chris Whelan bats during game one of the Iowa-Penn State baseball series at Duane Banks Field on Friday, April 28, 2017. The Hawkeyes swept the rain delayed, late night double header, 4-2 and 8-2, respectively. (The Daily Iowan/Lily Smith)

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Chris Whelan didn’t suit up for Iowa during the first 14 games of the season.

Recovering from Tommy John surgery, the junior grappled with the waiting game, eagerly anticipating his first action of the season.

“Spending a lot of the last month on the bench, I got to learn a little bit about what it takes to come back and appreciate the time you’ve taken off,” Whelan said.

On March 17, his 2018 début came, and he did not disappoint coaches, players, or fans in his usual leadoff position.

In the first of Iowa’s two games against Evansville, Whelan notched 2 hits in his 5 at bats, scoring 2 runs. In game No. 2, he matched his hitting and run totals from the previous game.

In the series finale, with a sweep on the line, Iowa and Evansville were deadlocked at 2 runs in the bottom of the eighth inning.

Whelan sparked an emphatic Hawkeye run, singling into right-center as the first Black and Gold batter of the inning. Kace Massner came into pinch run for him, and he eventually scored.

“[I’ve] fallen back in love with the game again,” Whelan said. “I kind of have a newfound appreciation for the game and a little bit more energy out there when I play.”

RELATED: Eighth-inning magic propels Iowa over Evansville

Thanks to Whelan’s leadoff momentum, Iowa rallied for a pair of runs, which ended up being the deciding factor in the Hawkeyes’ 4-3 victory.

“It’s unbelievable; Chris brings a different kind of energy,” Kyle Crowl said. “He’s just a great guy to have around. Having him in the top of the lineup, we’re carrying our chest up a little bit higher.”

Head coach Rick Heller praised Whelan for not only his performance over the weekend but for what he brings to the team.

“It’s really big. [Whelan] really helps our offense a ton,” Heller said. “Not only is he a really good hitter, but he finds ways to help out in other ways. He gets on base. His leadership when he’s playing is even better than when he’s not playing. He’s loose and keeps the guys in the game.”

Before he could get out on the field, though, the waiting game was tough for Whelan.

“I’ve never really had to have that much patience in my life,” he said.

Bu that patience paid off, both for the Naperville, Illinois, native and the Hawkeyes, who moved to 11-6 on the season following their three weekend wins.

Iowa has two more games before Big Ten play kicks off on Friday, when Indiana comes to Banks Field, but first comes St. Louis — a Big Ten killer.

The Billikens swept Purdue in a three-game series this past weekend, winning 15-1, 11-9, and 7-3.

St. Louis boasts Jake Garella, hitting .338, at the top of its batting order. Two more hitters, James Morisano and Carter Hanford, have each hit 3 home runs through 18 games this season.

Iowa and St. Louis previously squared off during the Snowbird Classic in Port Charlotte, Florida, in 2015. The Hawkeyes snagged the win, 4-2.

The Billikens enter today’s match with an 11-7 record — just one more loss than the Hawkeyes, who fell into a four-game slide after losing to UAB and getting swept by UNLV.

Iowa got back on track, and against Evansville, there was a bit more swagger in the lineup, especially at Whelan’s No. 1 batting spot, and that trickled down to his teammates.

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