The Iowa baseball team will look to bounce back against Rutgers on Friday, and it’s probably fair to say that Leroy Franklin likes Iowa’s chances because of its starting pitcher.
Franklin is the legendary baseball coach at Simeon High School in Chicago, a position he has held for nearly four decades.
He has coached countless players who went on to play baseball in college and professionally, including Iowa junior pitcher Blake Hickman.
“We always thought that whatever school he went to he would be successful because he’s a great kid, he’s a wonderful kid, an outstanding talent,” Franklin said of Hickman on Thursday.
Iowa will need Hickman’s talent to shine on Friday as it tries to bounce back from Thursday’s 5-3 loss to Rutgers in the series opener in Piscataway, N.J.
The Big Ten regular-season title is no longer within Iowa’s reach, but there still is plenty of incentive to win the last two games against Rutgers. The 13th-ranked Hawkeyes are hoping to host an NCAA Regional for the first time in school history.
There is reason to be optimistic with the 6-foot-5, 210-pound Hickman on the mound. He brings an 8-1 record and a 2.93 earned-run average into Friday’s game.
“He loves the game of baseball,” Franklin said. “He just loves to play. And the thing about Blake, he always wanted to be the best.”
Iowa’s quest to win the Big Ten title under second-year coach Rick Heller ended Thursday when Illinois defeated Nebraska 6-3 in the first of their three games to close the regular season. The victory gave Illinois its 30th Big Ten championship.
Iowa, with records of 37-13 overall and 18-4 in the Big Ten, already has clinched the second seed for the Big Ten Tournament, which will be held next week in Minneapolis.
Hickman is part of a large group of upperclassmen who have excelled for Iowa this season.
The key for Hickman was deciding last season to pitch on a full-time basis. He came to Iowa as a catcher under former coach Jack Dahm. But Franklin figured it was only a matter of time before Hickman would switch to pitching because of his arm strength.
Hickman’s fastball has been clocked at 97 miles per hour this season and he routinely throws in the mid-90s.
“When you have a kid throwing 93, 94 miles per hour on a consistent basis, he has to pitch,” said Franklin, who has led Simeon to nine city-league baseball titles. “I don’t care what he’s playing. If he’s playing shortstop or he’s playing first base, he has to pitch because that’s the whole key.
“What happened at Iowa is all the sudden he started pitching and I’m glad he did.”
Hickman said in April that he would consider skipping his senior year to enter the amateur baseball draft. He was drafted in the 10th round out of high school by the Chicago Cubs and is expected to go even higher in this year’s draft.
“I’m not saying he couldn’t catch because I thought he was an outstanding catcher,” Franklin said. “But when you’re trying to get to the big leagues, the name of the game in baseball is pitching.”
Hickman didn’t pitch much in high school, but he when he did, he made a lasting impression. Franklin said the game that stood out the most was when Hickman had a dominant performance against a very talented Marist High School team from Chicago.
Hickman’s fastball was clocked in the mid-90s and there were about a dozen professional scouts on hand to see him pitch that day.
Franklin still remembers what the scouts told him after watching Hickman pitch.
“They said this is one of the best arms that we have seen in the state,” Franklin said. “That told me something; that his future might be on the mound. I didn’t tell anybody. But that’s how I felt.”
Franklin has coached hundreds of players at Simeon, but when it comes to arm strength, Hickman stands out.
“I’d say he might be the best,” Franklin said.
Hickman has used his quest to play professional baseball as motivation for this season. He hasn’t let it become a distraction, but he often thinks about playing at the highest level.
“For guys who say they don’t think about the draft, there is no way,” Hickman said. “I haven’t had a day where I haven’t thought about it. I try not to talk about it. I try to stay focused on the team.”