Baseball hoping for déjà vu this weekend

BY SETH ROBERTS | MAY 06, 2011 7:20 AM

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Three weeks remain in the Iowa baseball season, and the Hawkeyes are in last place.

Sound familiar? It should.

The Hawkeyes were in the exact same situation at this point last year. They sat in the conference cellar with a 6-9 record, but won seven of their last nine games to vault all the way into third place. Iowa finished second in the Big Ten Tournament.

Iowa (16-26, 5-10) is within striking distance of the tournament again this year, despite losing every conference series to this point. The Black and Gold are just two games away from the sixth-place tourney cutoff, and they could jump into contention with a three-game sweep of current sixth-place squad Penn State (25-16, 7-8) this weekend.

“We’re in no different spot than we were a year ago,” head coach Jack Dahm said on Monday. “It’s been done before, our guys know it, and when a veteran team starts gaining confidence, anything can happen.”

Just a single win this weekend will leave the Hawkeyes in decent shape for a last-minute run. Iowa will travel to face Ohio State (third place, 9-6) and Purdue (first place, 10-6), both of whom will likely make the tournament. Second baseman Mike McQuillan said closing out the season against three probable tournament teams gives the Hawkeyes the opportunity to be in charge of their postseason chances.

“We’ve been in control of our own destiny this whole year,” McQuillan said on Monday. “We had good success [last season] against every team we have left, and we know we can go out there and play with anybody. It’s just a matter of producing and getting the little things done.”

Iowa’s pitching has been getting the little things done all season, as exemplified by ace Jarred Hippen’s one-hitter last weekend. The southpaw (2-5, 3.39 ERA) lost that game, 1-0, but he will take the hill tonight as the defending Big Ten Pitcher of the Week.

Hippen will be followed on Saturday by sophomore Matt Dermody, who has been excellent in his five Big Ten starts — the Norwalk native is 3-1 with a team-best 2.80 ERA in league play.

The third spot in the rotation is less set in stone, although junior Patrick Lala has proven to be a capable starter after he began the season in the bullpen. Usual No. 2 starter Nick Brown’s shoulder injury forced Dahm to shuffle the rotation three weeks ago, and the righthander from Marion answered the call with a respectable 3.77 ERA and 1-2 record in three starts.

Lala has also had a strong season out of the bullpen, though, and Dahm said he doesn’t having a problem using the fireballer before May 8 if necessary.

“We’re going to play it by ear, kind of the way we’ve been doing it,” Dahm said. “If [Hippen or Dermody] struggles, and we need to use Patrick before Sunday, we won’t be hesitant to do that … Every win is important, and if we need him before Sunday, we’ll go to him.”

No matter which pitcher takes the hill, the team won’t win games if it doesn’t improve its offense. The Hawkeyes have averaged fewer than 3 runs in each of their last seven games, and have lost six times over that stretch. Hippen was particularly affected in his one-hitter — Iowa failed to score on eight hits — but he said success isn’t far away.

“We only gave up six runs the entire weekend [against Minnesota] — if we keep pitching like that, we just need some timely hitting,” he said on Monday. “If that starts coming and we start getting hits in the right times … we’ll be in good shape.”

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