Boys of Summer tackle Weather of Winter

BY SETH ROBERTS | MARCH 29, 2011 7:20 AM

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Tonight’s forecast predicts a wind chill of 32 degrees — not exactly ideal weather for baseball.

The hand-numbing cold will make it more difficult for pitchers to grip the ball. Muscles will grow stiff as players sit in the dugout or wait for action on the field. The layer of frost on the grass will cause bunted balls to be unusually sluggish as they trickle across the infield.

The Iowa baseball team will face South Dakota State (7-9) this afternoon anyway, of course, but the Black and Gold know the cold could well play a role in how the game turns out. After all, the first pitch was bumped up an hour, to 4:05, to avoid the worst of the weather.

The Hawkeyes (9-11) are just a few days removed from a frigid home-opening series in which the team struggled to get anything going offensively. Iowa collected just 10 hits in the two games against Western Illinois at Banks Field, and leadoff hitter Trevor Willis watched his batting average dive almost 40 points after he went 1-for-12 in the three-game home-away battle.

Iowa’s offense stalled, but no one was affected more visibly than senior reliever Kevin Lee. The right-hander faced three Leatherneck batters without recording an out on March 26, and his ERA ballooned to 5.00 as he gave up two singles, a walk, and two earned runs in 12 pitches. He left the game shaking his arm, causing some concern that he may have been injured, but head coach Jack Dahm said his normally reliable reliever simply hadn’t been able to warm up properly because of the freezing temperatures.

Lee admitted the cold played some role in his poor performance, and he said the weather does more than make it hard to stretch out — it also takes a mental toll.

“A reliever is kind of standing around [in the bullpen], so when you finally get going, you’ve been in the cold all day, and you have to battle that,” he said. “We were in Texas [for eight games over spring break], which was great — the weather was in the 70s. Then you come back here and it’s 10 degrees with the wind chill.

“It’s different, and it’s physically and mentally affecting you in a negative way.”

It probably doesn’t help that the Hawkeyes are still getting used to a brand-new playing surface, either. The team installed fresh grass and dirt during the off-season and hasn’t had many opportunities to experience Banks Field’s various idiosyncrasies.

“[The field isn’t] where it’s going to be in two or three weeks,” Dahm said on March 26. “We still have some work to do on the mound. If you saw Nick [Brown], he was kind of stepping in a hole, so it’s not quite solid yet.”

Brown gave up just one run in seven innings, but he also gave up seven hits and had to work out of jams in almost every frame. Still, the right-hander said the adverse playing conditions can actually benefit pitchers if they approach the task with the right mindset.

“[It’s actually] better from a pitching standpoint because hitters can’t square up the ball,” Brown said on March 26. “A, it hurts their hands, and B, [hit balls aren’t] going to go anywhere — you see the wind blowing in [from the outfield].”

But while Brown seems to relish playing in the cold, his teammates are looking forward to when they don’t have to worry about a soft mound or wear practice caps with flip-down ear flaps.

“I’m sure that, after we get a few more warm days and we get a little more work on the field, everything’s going to be tuned up,” Lee said. “Hopefully, it will help everybody out.”

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