Baseball finally home and ready to play … somebody

BY SETH ROBERTS | MARCH 25, 2011 7:20 AM

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There are several ways to find out the Iowa baseball team’s opponent in its home-opener this evening.

Just don’t ask the Hawkeyes themselves.

Iowa (7-10) has adopted a mentality that every opponent is “faceless.” The idea is to treat each game the same, so as to better concentrate on personal improvement — and the message is sticking with the players.

“I’ve really bought into it,” Iowa ace Jarred Hippen said. “It’s about what I do when I go out there, not what the other team does. It’s going to help us down the road.”

Head coach Jack Dahm said he borrowed the term “faceless opponent” from Oregon football coach Chip Kelly, but the Hawkeyes have been approaching the games the same way since last year. The mindset began to take hold during the Big Ten season, when teams were slugging each other back and forth and no single program emerged as a front-runner for the conference title.

“There wasn’t much movement in the standings, and that allowed our guys to quit worrying about the standings,” Dahm said. “[We could start] worrying about ourselves and what we could control.”

Iowa appeared to enjoy that luxury and finished second in the Big Ten Tournament.

Hippen has posted solid numbers by following the mantra this season (1-1 with a 4.13 ERA and 17 strikeouts), and he said he hasn’t spent much time exclusively preparing for his start against Western Illinois (3-15) tonight. Instead, Hippen and the Hawkeyes are just happy to be home after a 17-game road trip.

The Black and Gold spent the first third of the season criss-crossing the South, and the Hawks most recently played eight games in nine days while in Texas for spring break. The squad appeared exhausted at the end of that trip, dropping a pair of bad losses to Gonzaga in the Notre Dame Tournament, and senior shortstop Kurt Lee said playing at Banks Field is just what the team needs.

“We’ve gone three or four weeks now without seeing a home crowd, and that makes a big difference,” he said. “Being able to hear a cheer when you get a big hit or do something well instead of boos and screams … is going to be exciting. It will have a good effect on us.”

Both Lee and Dahm were quick to admit the Hawkeyes didn’t foresee sitting at 7-10 with a .250 collective batting average at this point in the season, especially after the success of 2010. But both the senior and skipper said there have been plenty of positives thus far as well, starting with the team’s ability to overcome injuries to its preseason stars.

Seniors Tyson Blaser and Zach McCool have lost their starting spots — at least temporarily — but have willingly accepted other roles. McCool, projected as the team’s starting third basemen, will see time in left field. Blaser will play some designated hitter to rest the shoulder he tweaked while playing catcher over spring break.

The team-first mentality appears to have rubbed off on the younger Hawkeyes as well. Freshman Bryan Niedbalski is one of the better hitters on the team, but the burly first baseman dropped down what he said was the first bunt of his life against Mississippi State on March 5.

Dahm said the faceless opponents, small-ball, and position-shuffling play into the larger picture of building a selfless and ultimately successful team.

“We can’t play against what’s across the front of their jerseys — we’re playing against the game of baseball,” Dahm said. “If we come out and play good, solid baseball, we’ve got a very good chance to win.”

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