Hot Hawkeye hitters travel to Illinois

BY SETH ROBERTS | APRIL 08, 2011 7:20 AM

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The spring is still chilly, but the Iowa baseball team’s bats are scalding hot.

The Hawkeyes (11-15, 1-2 Big Ten) have scored 33 runs and clubbed 32 hits in their past two games, a 19-7 win over Michigan State on Sunday and a 14-1 pounding of Coe College on Wednesday. The outburst came after the team averaged just over 3 runs per game during a four-game losing streak.

“We went through a really tough time … where we just weren’t driving in runs,” head coach Jack Dahm said on Wednesday. “[Now], our guys are sticking with their approaches, simplifying things, and not trying to do too much.”

While it’s unrealistic to expect the team will post those kinds of numbers on a regular basis, the Hawkeyes’ vastly improved approach gives the team a vital weapon heading into a weekend road series with Illinois: confidence.

Granted, the Black and Gold didn’t face the kind of pitching in their midweek game against Division-III Coe that they will see this weekend from the Fighting Illini (9-14, 1-2). Second baseman Mike McQuillan said as much after he worked three walks on Wednesday, saying there’s a “big difference” between the Kohawks’ 80-mph fastballs and the 90-mph heat he expects to face tonight from Illini ace Kevin Johnson (1-3, 3.56 ERA).

But when a team is as confident in the batters’ box as the Hawkeyes appear to be right now, opponents are hard-pressed to record outs.

Even Iowa’s reserves have gotten in on the action. Freshman outfielder Kyle Haen was 0-for-9 this year before entering Wednesday’s game in the seventh inning. He ripped a double down the left-field line and knocked in a run with a single in the eighth frame.

“They’re starting to do a good job in batting practice, and [they’re] taking what they’re doing in the batting cage to the game,” Dahm said. “It’s all about the process. We’re trying to simplify things for our guys, and they’re doing a good job with it.”

The idea of simplicity was echoed by senior utilityman Zach McCool. The career .290 hitter is having a subpar year at the plate, batting just .225 in 26 games, but he said breaking down his at-bats has helped his approach.

“Take one pitch at a time,” he said. “You go out there every single day and play to your best ability. You have to keep playing the simple game of baseball — keep hitting. If we keep going, our confidence is going to build.”

The confidence can only benefit the Hawkeyes as they readjust to Division-I pitching. Illinois pitchers haven’t been stellar this year, giving up a .274 batting average to their opponents, but each of the likely starters has struck out at least 22 batters and Dahm said his team can’t afford to underestimate the Illini.

“Whenever you play Illinois — I don’t care what sport it is — it’s always a battle,” the eighth-year coach said. “They’re a very good club. They hit a little bit of a rut lately, but … Illinois is right there on the cusp of breaking out, and they’re looking forward to us coming in. They want to win the series at home, and we want to win it on the road.”

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