Hawkeye offense heading south as team goes north to Minnesota

BY BEN SCHUFF | APRIL 27, 2012 6:30 AM

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A few Iowa baseball players take swings in front of a full-body mirror outside the Hawkeye clubhouse before every practice. The routine is done to help perfect the hitters' technique.

The act is slightly symbolic, though, as some of Iowa's hitters acknowledged they need to look in the mirror and start producing more.

"It's time to start playing playoff baseball now," senior first baseman Mike McQuillan said.

Iowa's (16-20, 5-7 Big Ten) offense is in a funk as the team heads north for a three-game series this weekend against Minnesota (23-19, 7-5). The first pitch is set for 6:35 p.m. today in the Metrodome.

While the Hawkeye batting order has been anything but a juggernaut this season — the Black and Gold rank ninth in the Big Ten with 183 runs scored — it has gone through a relative slump recently. Iowa is scoring 2.4 runs in its last five games since the team lost to Bradley at home on April 18.

"I was real excited where [the offense] was at coming out of Nebraska and beating Western Illinois here," Iowa head coach Jack Dahm said, referring to games that were played about three weeks ago. "I really felt we were starting to get it going, coming up with some timely hits."

The opposite has happened since then, though. Iowa scored 24 runs in the four games Dahm talked about early in April, but has scored only 12 runs in the last five.

The Hawkeye offense bottomed out on April 21, when Penn State's Steven Hill threw a no-hitter at Banks Field.

"We're swinging at balls that we can't handle," Dahm said. "It has got to the point now where we're not aggressive on fastballs early in the count — and then when we do get a pitch to hit, we don't put a good, aggressive swing on it."

Senior Phil Keppler had similar beliefs about the team's approach at the plate. He leads the Hawkeyes with a .352 batting average.

"Earlier in the year we were kind of impatient, and then we did a better job of looking at pitches," he said. "It seems now we're maybe a little bit too patient. The other night [a loss to Bradley] we took a lot of first-pitch fastballs. So maybe just being a little more aggressive when we get a pitch to hit."

Jump-starting the offense won't be easy against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers boast one of the best pitching staffs in the Big Ten and own the conference's lowest team ERA (2.95)

Tonight's starter, T.J. Oakes, brings the lowest individual ERA in the league — 1.54 — to the mound. He's the only Big Ten pitcher with an ERA below 2.

Iowa is in eighth place at the conference's midway point. But despite a losing Big Ten record, the Hawkeyes are only one game out of second place.

McQuillan said a sense of urgency that he hopes comes with only four Big Ten series remaining could wake up the Iowa bats.

"Our pitching is going to be fine," he said. "It's going to be on the offense the rest of the way."

Follow DI baseball reporter Ben Schuff on Twitter.

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