By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – On a chilly and dreary mid-May afternoon, the Iowa baseball team had a performance that sort of matched the weather.
With a chance to win a series for the seventh time in the last eight tries, and with a chance to strengthen its postseason chances, the Hawkeyes unraveled against Illinois, losing 14-1 on Saturday at Duane Banks Field.
Iowa was held to just three hits, while Illinois scored six runs in the third inning and five in the seventh to even the three-game series at one win apiece.
The teams will meet in the rubber match at 1:05 p.m. on Sunday at Banks Field.
There should be plenty of emotion on Sunday as Iowa will honor its seniors before the game, and with so much on the line from a post-season standpoint.
“Just a tough day for us all the way around,” said Iowa coach Rick Heller. “It didn’t seem like anything was going our way.”
You name it and Iowa struggled to do it, from starting pitching to relief pitching to hitting, it just wasn’t meant to be for Iowa on Saturday.
The good news is that despite losing by 13 runs, it still only counts as one loss and Iowa (22-15) still has a chance to win the series on Senior Day.
“It’s just one, but you’ve got to learn from it and get ready to go tomorrow,” Heller said.
Iowa brought momentum into Saturday’s game after having rallied late to defeat Illinois 5-4 in the series opener on Friday.
Iowa starting pitcher Duncan Davitt cruised through the first inning on Saturday before allowing one run in the second.
But then Illinois jumped all over Davitt by scoring six runs in the third.
Heller was forced to go to his bullpen much earlier than he would’ve preferred, but Illinois just kept adding to its lead.
“He just wasn’t locating very well and then he was up in the zone,” Heller said of Davitt, who had been pitching well before struggling on Saturday. “I think he got frustrated a couple times and he wasn’t able to regroup and finish it off.
“First inning, I thought, alright, he’s going to be the guy we’ve seen the last few weeks. Unfortunately, in the third when things sort of went haywire, he wasn’t able to minimize it. If he could’ve just held them to one or two (runs), you still feel like you’ve got a chance to come back.”
Iowa senior catcher Austin Martin emphasized the need to stay calm and to keep doing the things that have helped to put Iowa in a position to make the NCAA Tournament.
“We’d had our same approach to every game for the entire season, and we’ve found success with it, so we’re not going to change anything going into tomorrow,” Martin said. “It’s just another day. We kind of got exposed on certain levels of the game today, and we’re going to wipe it away and treat tomorrow as a new day.”
Asked what he meant by being exposed, Martin said:
“I just don’t think we were as locked in as we typically are in certain aspects of the game. But it’s not going to define the rest of our season, I promise you that.”
Iowa is considered an NCAA bubble team with seven games left in the regular season.
Following Sunday’s game against Illinois, Iowa will play a three-series at Northwestern next weekend followed by a three-game series at Michigan State to finish the regular season.
There is speculation Iowa would have to win all three series to have a chance to make the NCAA Tournament for the third time under Heller.
So, yes, there is pressure to win, but little that Heller can do to relieve the pressure.
“They know if we play well we’ve got a chance to win,” Heller said. “If we’re sloppy like we were today, especially on the mound, that makes it tough to beat anybody.”