The Iowa baseball team has encountered a major change.
For the better.
With coach Rick Heller in his first season and 20 lettermen returning, the Hawkeyes are off to a 9-1 start and have won seven straight games for the best start for the program since 1940. Iowa received votes in the NCBWA poll Monday. They have the best record in the Big Ten and are either first or second in the conference in 12 of the 14 major statistical categories.
Things are different, but Heller isn’t surprised by the early success.
“I felt like if we could fix some things that needed to be fixed, then we had a chance to have a good season,” Heller said Tuesday. “When you inherit an older team, the biggest key of all is them accepting what we were asking them to do and buying into our system and what we feel is the right way to play the game. I couldn’t be happier with the support that we’ve gotten from the players. If they don’t buy in, it doesn’t matter.”
Most notably, Iowa leads the Big Ten in batting average, runs, doubles, home runs and stolen bases, and is second in hits. On the mound, the Hawkeyes are second in strikeouts and seventh in ERA.
Made up of mostly the same players, last year’s roster hit two home runs all season. Through 10 games this year, Iowa has already connected for six homers.
“It’s about having the right approach,” infielder Jake Mangler said. “We’re focusing more on hitting pitches that we can drive in the gaps or over the fence.”
A redshirt junior, Mangler has opened the season with a hit in all 10 games and is hitting at a .405 clip with a team-leading 17 hits and 11 RBI. Infielder Jake Yacinich leads the team with a .412 batting average. Pitcher and catcher Blake Hickman leads the Big Ten in home runs with three, while outfielder Taylor Zeutenhorst is second with two long balls and also has 10 RBI. Outfielder Eric Toole — a preseason first-team all-Big Ten pick — is starting to heat up as well, hitting at a .326 clip with four stolen bases and seven RBI.
The offense has also led to success in the later innings for Heller’s squad. This past weekend against Maine, Iowa recorded a 13-12 come-from-behind victory after trailing 7-0 in the second inning and 12-11 heading in to the bottom of the ninth.
“We knew coming into this year that we’d have a chance to be a really quality team, and that’s showing right now,” Yacinich said. “It helps we’re experienced, especially late in games. We’re outscoring teams late. If we’re down, we know we’re still in every game.”
Iowa advanced to the Big Ten Tournament just three times under previous coach Jack Dahm. The last time the program was in the NCAA Tournament was 1990.
There are still 43 games remaining, but the outlook is moving in the right direction for Iowa.
“We needed to change the culture of Iowa baseball,” Heller said. “Not knocking anybody or how things were done, I’m not saying it in a negative way. I wanted to establish how we were going to play. When teams play us, they know they’re going to have to beat us. We’re not going to give anything away. That’s what we’ve challenged this group with. It’s not a situation where I brought in 20 new guys. We inherited a team that’s junior dominated and that we’re going to play with for two years.
“The teams that show up everyday with great energy and great focus are the teams that win consistently.”