For the first time since 2010, the Iowa baseball team is headed to the Big Ten Tournament.
The Hawkeyes (29-21, 10-14 Big Ten) go into Omaha, Neb., leading the conference in batting average, on-base percentage and runs, and are second in hits, RBIs, and home runs.
This is all in Rick Heller’s first season as coach, the first year of the team’s transition. This week also marks just the fourth time the program has advanced to the postseason in the last 10 years. Eighth-seeded Iowa plays No. 1 Indiana (38-13, 21-3) at 5 p.m. Wednesday. Heller hopes it is the start of a run of consistent postseason berths.
“You want to get to a point where it’s not a big deal to get to the conference tournament,” Heller said Monday. “Hopefully we can get the program to the point that it’s expected, and it’s something we do year in and year out. I’d like a senior going through the program, and he’s been to four conference tournaments.
“We want to take it even further than that. We hope to get to regional tournaments and go from there. That’s the vision for the program. Are we there yet? No. … But if you look at our numbers after 50 games, they’re pretty impressive.”
Iowa paces the Big Ten in multiple offensive categories, with a .302 team batting average, 332 runs and 23 home runs. Junior shortstop Jake Yacinich leads the offense, hitting at a .369 clip with team-bests of 73 hits, a .442 on-base percentage, and 24 stolen bases.
His first two years, like many on Iowa’s roster — 17 of a total 31 players are juniors — were filled with a flurry of losses. Iowa went 23-27 in 2012 and 22-27 in 2013. Iowa started this spring 9-1, even garnering votes in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll.
Yacinich said the team easily adapted to Heller and his coaching staff.
“You can tell the passion he had for the game, for this state, and for this university right when he came in,” Yacinich said. “As a player, when a coach comes in like that, he automatically has all your trust. You really respect the guy. He teaches us every single day, and he helps us get better.”
As Iowa continues its turnaround, Wednesday’s tournament game awaits against Indiana. The Hoosiers made the College World Series last year, and went 23-3 this season after April 1. They swept the Hawkeyes 6-3, 14-3 and 5-3 on April 5-7 in Iowa City.
Sasha Kuebel is Wednesday’s scheduled starter. The lefty is 4-1 with a 2.84 ERA over his last six appearances. Kuebel began the season as the No. 2 starting pitcher. Ace Calvin Mathews is hampered by a shoulder injury and available only out of the bullpen, while No. 3 starter Tyler Peyton has been bothered by a lat muscle injury over the last month. Sophomore Blake Hickman also is in the mix to start a tournament game this week.
“The biggest thing is Sasha consistently gets up deep into the game,” Heller said. “If he has trouble, it’s usually one inning, and it’s usually early. If he fights his way through it, he settles down and gives us long starts. It’s the best dice roll I think we can make.”
With mostly sophomores and juniors on the roster, the outlook looks good for the Hawkeyes in 2015. But any long-term goals start Wednesday for Iowa, the first time in four years the program is back in the conference tournament, yet another step on the rebuild checklist under Heller.
“We get a chance to prove what we’re made of,” Kuebel said. “We didn’t show up that well in our three-game series against (Indiana in April). This is our chance to prove that we’re capable of really good things. We want to make a name for ourselves. We want to make some noise in this thing.”