Iowa baseball bounces back with improvement on the mound

Just one week after getting swept to open Big Ten play, Iowa baseball picked up a clean sweep against a top-25 Illinois squad.

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Iowa baseball bounces back with improvement on the mound

Hawkeye pitcher Trenton Wallace pitches during the baseball game against Illinois at Duane Banks Field on March 30, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 2-1 after the 9th inning.

Hawkeye pitcher Trenton Wallace pitches during the baseball game against Illinois at Duane Banks Field on March 30, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 2-1 after the 9th inning.

Ryan Adams

Hawkeye pitcher Trenton Wallace pitches during the baseball game against Illinois at Duane Banks Field on March 30, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 2-1 after the 9th inning.

Ryan Adams

Ryan Adams

Hawkeye pitcher Trenton Wallace pitches during the baseball game against Illinois at Duane Banks Field on March 30, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Fighting Illini 2-1 after the 9th inning.

Pete Ruden, Sports Editor

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Bart Kaufman Field was not a friendly place for the Hawkeye baseball team March 22-24. In Iowa’s first Big Ten series of the season, Indiana swept the Hawkeyes, with the Hoosiers outscoring them 23-4 in the three-game series.

But one week later, the Hawkeyes turned it around in the friendly confines of Banks Field, sweeping No. 25 Illinois to even their conference record at 3-3.

The dramatic change in play included major work on the mound and in the batter’s box, but Iowa improved its performance without a hitch.

“It’s the ultimate bounce-back week for us; it couldn’t have been any better,” senior designated hitter Chris Whelan said. “I don’t want to say we planned this, but it was definitely something we had our sights set on. Going into practice last week, we were just trying to have a lot of fun, trying to get back to the basics of baseball [and] why we started playing the game to take the added pressure away from ourselves.”

The biggest change for the Hawkeyes heading into the Illinois series was pitching. After giving up 23 runs in the sweep against the Hoosiers, Iowa allowed only 6 to the Illini, highlighted by the pitching performances of Cam Baumann and Grant Judkins.

In Iowa’s 2-1 win on March 30, Baumann tossed six strong innings, conceding merely 5 hits and only 1 run. Trenton Wallace took over in relief from there, giving up just 1 hit in 3 scoreless innings of work.

Judkins kept the momentum going on Sunday, allowing 1 run on 6 hits in his seven innings.

While Kaufman Field served as a launching pad in Bloomington, the Hawkeye pitching staff kept things under control this time around, using the Iowa City wind to its advantage.

“I saw the wind was blowing in, so my goal for the game was just to command the zone, pound it, let them get themselves out, and just let my defense work,” Judkins said.

The plan worked. Although Judkins ran into a jam with the bases loaded on Saturday, he worked through it. Reliever Trace Hoffman found out something similar in the eighth.

With the bases loaded and only one out, Illinois’ Michael Michalak flied out to right. Connor McCaffery then froze the runner at third with a powerful throw and forced a pickle between second and third. After the play, Iowa shortstop Tanner Wetrich threw home for a rare 9-9-2-6-2 double play to get the Hawkeyes out of the inning.

The play ended up being symbolic of Iowa’s performance in the last week. After the Hawkeyes looked like they were in trouble in Big Ten play, they picked up a key sweep in what could turn out to be a pivotal series come May.

Now, Iowa’s attention switches from the Illini to following its plan of attack. With two midweek games and a home series against Rutgers coming up, the Hawkeyes have a big opportunity to show what they can do.

“For me, it’s more about the process and how we go about our business,” Iowa head coach Rick Heller said. “The confidence, win, lose, or draw, that we’re the aggressor, that we’re taking it to them. There’s no fear, there’s no hesitation.”