Mother Nature did her part Friday, with the temperature above 50 degrees and a partly sunny sky.
Iowa sophomore pitcher Calvin Mathews did his part, limiting the Nebraska baseball team to just one run and six hits over eight innings.
His teammates also did their part on defense, committing just one error over nine innings.
And yet it was all about to go to waste until Iowa rallied for two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to defeat Nebraska 2-1 in the Big Ten opener for both teams at Duane Banks Field.
Senior catcher Trevor Kenyon smacked a one-out single between third base and shortstop to score Taylor Zeutenhorst with the winning run off star Cornhusker reliever Josh Roeder.
“Nobody gave up and we were doing it against a quality closer,” first-year Iowa coach Rick Heller said. “I’m very happy with our effort.”
Iowa improved to 13-5 overall, while Nebraska fell to 12-8. Friday’s game was the first of a three-game series that will resume with another game at 2 p.m. Saturday, followed by a 1 p.m. game Sunday.
“That last inning is what we’ve been doing since the beginning of the year, we’ve just been battling and finding ways to win,” Kenyon said.
Nebraska broke a scoreless tie with one run in the seventh inning off Mathews. Two seeing-eye singles and a fielder’s choice helped to produce the run.
Iowa threatened in the third inning by getting two runners on base with just one out. However, Nebraska starting pitcher Christian DeLeon quelled the rally by getting Iowa shortstop Jake Yacinich to hit into an inning-ending double play.
Iowa’s bats were silent for the most part after that until the bottom of the ninth inning.
The rally started when first baseman Tyler Peyton reached on a walk with one out. He was replaced by pinch runner Nick Roscetti, who advanced to third base on a single by Zeutenhorst.
Pinch-hitter Taylor Kaufman tied the game at 1-1 with a one-out single, scoring Roscetti. Kaufman and Zeutenhorst then advanced to third base and second base, respectively, on a wild pitch. Junior left fielder Kris Goodman reached first base on an intentional walk, loading the bases and setting the stage for Kenyon’s game-winning hit, which came off a Roeder slider.
“I was thinking he was going to go slider with his best pitch, but since he wasn’t feeling it, I was just looking dead-red fastball and got two of those really early and kept fighting them off,” Kenyon said. “He threw me a little slider at the end and I just kind of stayed with it.”
Mathews stayed ahead of the batters throughout Friday’s game and didn’t allow any walks while throwing 100 pitches.
“Coach talks a lot about pitching ahead of counts and pitching to contact, and that’s what I was trying to do today,” said Mathews, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound native of Bloomfield. “And all the guys in the field were making plays behind me, so everything was going pretty well.”
Heller praised Mathews for following the game plan.
“He did a great job for us,” Heller said. “I couldn’t be prouder of Calvin Mathews. We talked this week, that is a team that’s aggressive, they like to swing. And we were hoping to induce contact early in the count so Calvin could keep his pitch can’t down. He did just that. He went deep in the game for us. We played solid defense behind him and he made quality pitches.”
Sophomore Blake Hickman, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound Chicago native, pitched the seventh inning for Iowa. He gave up a single to Nebraska left fielder Michael Pritchard to begin the inning. However, Pritchard was thrown out by Kenyon for the first out while trying to steal second base.
Kenyon said nobody on the team lost confidence, even after the game reached the late innings. He credits that to Iowa’s experience.
“That’s the good thing about this ball club, a lot of us are older,” said Kenyon, who graduated from Davenport Central. “We only have two freshmen on the squad. It’s all seniors and juniors with a few sophomores. And we’ve all been in those situations for a long time.
“So right now, it’s just baseball. We don’t really have fear going up there. We’re just looking to hit the ball.”
Iowa was off to its best start since 1940 after winning nine of its first 10 games. It stumbled against Kansas State, losing all three games, but has since won four of its last five games.
Iowa will face Michigan and Big Ten preseason favorite Indiana in its next two conference series.
“We’re hanging in there,” said Heller, who coached at Indiana State, Northern Iowa and Upper Iowa before landing the Iowa job. We wanted to be close to where we are right now heading into conference (play). We knew that we were going to have to play three of the better teams in the league right of the bat, and we had better be ready when it happens.
“And I was very happy with how our guys handled themselves today. They were in control. They just went out and played the game and never quit.”
Mathews summed up Iowa’s effort in five words:
“We fought the whole game,” he said.