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Baseball hosts Nebraska

BY J.T. BUGOS | APRIL 27, 2010 7:30 AM

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The bottom half of the Iowa baseball lineup has struggled for much of the season, but the top four batters in the order are making up the difference as the Hawkeyes head into a midweek game with Nebraska.

Kurtis Muller, Zach McCool, Mike McQuillan, and Ryan Durant are the first four to get their hacks in at the plate. They have four of the five highest batting averages on the team, account for more than half the team’s RBIs, and score 47 percent of the runs.

“There’s no doubt that we go as our top four guys go,” catcher Tyson Blaser said. “Even we go as Muller goes. He had a big weekend for us, and it’s not surprising that we took two out of three. When he has a big weekend like he did, it bodes well for us.”

Muller is the stereotypical leadoff man. He hits for a high average, and with 19 stolen bases on the season, he doesn’t need the Hawkeyes to give up an out to get him into scoring position. The center fielder was hitting over .400 earlier in the season, but then he tweaked his hamstring against South Dakota State on March 31.

After going 7-for-12 against Michigan last weekend, Muller raised his average to .367.

“He hit some balls really hard and pulled some baseballs, which he hadn’t been doing all that much,” Iowa head coach Jack Dahm said. “He really tracked some balls down in the outfield this weekend, and you could see he had that extra gear back. I think that’s why you’re seeing him swing the bat a little better.”

McCool nearly matched Muller against the Wolverines. The third baseman collected six hits in 12 at-bats, scoring twice and driving in two.

The junior from Manchester, Iowa, leads the team in batting average (.370) and slugging percentage (.550), and he is tied with Muller for the lead in triples (three).

McCool wasn’t a regular in Iowa’s lineup at the beginning of the season, but his prowess at the plate forced Dahm’s hand.

“The entire year, he’s been leading our team in quality at-bats,” the seventh-year head coach said. “Even if his batting average wasn’t the highest, his quality at-bats were better than anybody we had on the team. He brings an energy and a toughness to our lineup.

“He’s just swinging the bat so well right now we can’t get him out.”

McQuillan and Durant occupy the three and four spots in the Hawkeye order. Dahm said McQuillan has the team’s most natural swing, and once the second baseman becomes consistent, he should start ripping the ball for extra bases.

Durant has the lowest average of the four, but has amassed 34 RBIs this season — five more than last season and nine more than second-place McQuillan.

“I don’t think Ryan was really locked in this past weekend against Michigan, but it seemed like anytime we needed a run driven in, he found a way to get it done,” Dahm said. “If you want to talk about timely hitting, he’s the guy who’s been giving us that big swing of the bat.”

He said the team is focused on a way to heat up the bottom half of the order, and the coaches have even tossed around the idea of moving one of the top four Hawkeyes down in the lineup. But he decided he liked the way the quartet is hitting at the top, and McCool agreed a change wasn’t necessary.

“The biggest thing is, I have to get on base and give the hitters behind me a chance to drive me in,” he said. “I have confidence from McQuillan to Durant to the bottom of the order that they’re going to get it done.

“We’re finally starting to play the game the right way, and figure things out, and it’s starting to click a little bit.”

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