CHAMPAIGN, IL- Things followed a familiar blueprint for Illinois in Friday’s series opener against Iowa. They got an RBI
double and a monster two-run homer from Bren Spillane. They got a home run off of the scoreboard in right from Michael Massey. They got a ringing double from Doran Turchin that missed leaving the park by a foot or two.
Those types of things have been the mark of so many Illini wins over the last month, but on Friday night, Iowa beat them at their own game in an 8-5 win.
The Hawkeyes scratched a run across on Illinois starter Quinn Snarskis in the first on a wild pitch, but most of their damage was done in a five-run third that featured a two-RBI single from Robert Neustrom, an RBI single from Austin Guzzo, a Kyle Crowl RBI single, and an RBI sac fly from Justin Jenkins. Command issues for Snarskis helped as well, as the righty walked two hitters in the frame, uncorked a wild pitch, and had a passed ball that could easily have been called a wild pitch as well.
Snarskis often struggled to find the plate and when he found it, Iowa hit it hard just about every time.
For Neustrom, who went 3-for-4 with a home run (which was a monster shot in the fourth inning), a walk, three RBI, and four runs scored, it was just a continuation of what he’s been doing of late. On the season, he’s now hitting .378/.452/.600, and he’s gone a combined 8-for-14 in the last three games, wins over Indiana, Bradley, and Illinois. Spillane, who has more home runs to the opposite field so far this season than any other Big Ten hitter has total home runs, has to be considered the favorite to win Big Ten Player of the Year as it stands today, but Neustrom has also clearly established himself as a contender for the award with what he has done so far.
With the departures of Jake Adams and Mason McCoy after last season, and with Chris Whelan on the shelf for the first few weeks of this season, it was important that Neustrom establish himself as “the guy” on offense for the Hawkeyes, and he’s done that.
“I think, early on, he was pressing a little bit,” said Iowa head coach Rick Heller. “He was still getting his hits, but he wasn’t giving you the solid contact and the drives that we were used to. Here for the last two, three weeks, he’s been looking pretty good. He looked like an All-American, like he is, against Evansville for three games, had a good series against Indiana. He’s been driving the ball, had a good game tonight. (Tyler) Cropley’s been a big reason he (Neustrom) has started to come out of it because he’s been hot the entire year. He’s been our best hitter all year long. They have to pitch to Robert, that’s for sure.”
With 13 runs scored in the midweek win over Bradley and then eight more in the series opener against Illinois, to go along with flashes they showed in series against the likes of Evansville and Indiana, there’s a feeling that maybe the Iowa offense has fully turned a corner.
“I thought we kind of started coming out of it against Evansville, had decent at-bats in both the games against Indiana against some good arms,” Heller said. “I just felt like the guys were starting to get their confidence. Being home was important as well. Getting some home games, and getting the guys back to feeling good about themselves. And then tonight, it was nice we knocked (Illinois starting pitcher Quinn) Snarskis out early, put up a five spot early.”
Whelan’s Return Lengthens Lineup
A huge reason for optimism around an improving offense for Iowa is the return of Chris Whelan, who missed the first few weeks of the season due to his recovery from Tommy John surgery, usually an operation specific to pitchers. He’s still not playing the field, but he has recovered enough to DH, and he’s been a huge catalyst since returning.
He’s hitting .395/.465/.474 in his nine games since returning, with only two strikeouts in 38 at-bats, giving Iowa a dynamic table-setter at the top of the lineup and giving them lineup length they simply didn’t have while he was out of action.
“It’s huge just having someone at the top that can get on base like he can,” said Heller. “No one expected him to hit the ground running like he did. It’s pretty amazing, really, what he’s done. He hasn’t missed a beat. He actually looks better than he did at any point last year.”
And that’s saying something because Whelan had his fair share of highlights in 2017 and ended the season hitting .309/.435/.464 with 11 doubles and seven homers. In fact, there were times, like early in Iowa’s run in the Big Ten Tournament last season, when Whelan was as tough an out as anyone in the order.
Now, with Whelan back and hitting well, Heller can drop the likes of Matt Hoeg and Justin Jenkins, two guys who did some leading off with Whelan out, further in the lineup, giving the bottom of the order some depth it didn’t have before.
Hoeg is a player who showed some power a year ago with 16 doubles and five homers, making him a good fit in the six spot, where he hit against Illinois on Friday. Jenkins, meanwhile, with an on-base percentage above .400 and speed that allows him to patrol center field ably, provides an on-base/speed combination at the bottom of the lineup that will help to turn the lineup over and give the top of the order some guys on base to knock in.
Daniels Steadies Iowa Bullpen
It hasn’t been a cakewalk in the Iowa bullpen this season. Several pitchers the Hawkeyes expected to be key pieces in that unit haven’t been as successful as they would have hoped to this point of the season.
Kyle Shimp (8.31 ERA), Jack Dreyer (9.35 ERA), Shane Ritter (7.00 ERA), and Kole Kampen (5.40 ERA) have all struggled to varying degrees, and that’s led to a lot of mixing and matching, with 12 different Iowa hurlers seeing time in relief.
One big exception to the struggles of this group, however, is Zach Daniels. He’s been outstanding this season, and he did the job again on Friday against the Illini.
He entered the game in quite the predicament, with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the seventh, immediately after the Illini had pulled to within two runs at 7-5. Just a matter of seconds later, Daniels induced a 6-4-3 double play off the bat of Ben Troike, getting his team out of the jam. He also threw a scoreless eighth, despite loading the bases thanks in large part to two walks.
“It’s great to have Zach at the back end of the bullpen,” Heller said. “He’s been good and he’s one of the best closers in the league, and it’s great to have him back there.”
The numbers certainly back up Heller’s praise. For the year, Daniels has a 1.89 ERA in 19 innings, with a 22/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .161 opponent batting average, picking up where he left off a year ago, when he was also one of the team’s most reliable relievers.
Of course, when you find yourself searching for answers like Iowa has in the bullpen, you’re bound to find solutions in unexpected places, and they’ve found that with Grant Leonard, who came on and pitched a perfect ninth inning to earn his second save of the season on Friday night.
Leonard, a pitcher who appeared all of twice last season, leads the team in appearances this season, with 13, and outside of one tough outing on the road against UNLV when he surrendered three earned runs in one-third of an inning, he’s been solid. In ten innings, he has a 4.50 ERA and ten strikeouts to go with just three walks. If you remove the UNLV outing, that ERA drops to 1.86. Simply put, he’s been effective far more often than not when called upon.
“That guy right there that closed out the ninth has been amazing for us this year,” Heller said of Leonard. “A walk-on that none of us thought would make the team the first year. A good story.”
With Neustrom hitting like an All-American, Whelan back at full strength and then some, and bullpen roles at least starting to be better defined, a series-opening win on the road against a ranked Illinois team might just be the beginning for this group.