Playing ball at the speed of go

BY JACOB SHEYKO | MAY 01, 2014 5:00 AM

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Baseball is a slow game. The majority of people who dislike the game note this as their main reason. It doesn’t have the up-and-down tempo of other sports such as football or basketball, and even in its best moments, the game can drag on.

But don’t mistake the pace the baseball as proof that speed doesn’t play a factor in determining a winner and loser. As the Iowa baseball team has proven, speed can have more than one effect on the game. And it’s one of the main reasons the Hawkeyes have positioned themselves to advance to their first postseason since 2010.

“I think it plays a big role. That’s one of our strengths; we knew that going into the season,” head coach Rick Heller said. “We had a lot of team speed, and we’re going to have to try to use it as best we can and score runs.”

When you think about speed, one statistic comes to mind — stolen bases. The Hawkeyes are not only tops in the Big Ten in this category, but they’re also the most efficient, swiping bags at a 78.3 percent success rate.

But there’s more importance to stealing bases than advancing the runner — although that never hurts. As several members of the team noted, the mere threat of speed can get into a pitcher’s head, diverting some attention away from the batter.

This may be one of the many reasons Iowa ranks first in the Big Ten in batting average and on-base percentage and second among Big Ten teams in slugging percentage, runs scored, hits, and RBIs.

“[Pitchers] always have to have that in the back of their mind; they know if they bounce one and the catcher doesn’t block it perfectly, then there’s a chance we’re on the next base,” shortstop Jake Yacinich said. “I think that something that definitely benefits us.”

Unlike stolen bases, most aspects of speed in baseball are not easily quantifiable.

There are few statistics in baseball that note the significance of speed. However, its effect on Iowa’s game has been huge. One of those areas that don’t show up on the stat sheet is in the field.

Iowa’s regular starting outfield — Eric Toole, Taylor Zeutenhorst, and Kris Goodman — have speed to spare. Because of that, every time they take the field together, they challenge themselves to not let hits drop in the outfield. They also call themselves the “Prairie Patrol,” a nickname created by Zeutenhorst early in the season.

“I don’t know; we call the outfield the prairie, and one day Zeutenhorst goes, ‘Nothing’s falling in the prairie, we’re the prairie patrol,’ ” Toole said. “It’s just something that we came up with, and we want to it to stick.”

Whether it’s a steal that moves a runner into scoring position, a bunt hit, or an outfielder showcasing his range to take away a hit from an opponent, speed has affected the Hawkeyes this season.

As the Big Ten season has progressed, runs will become more of a commodity, making speed all the more important in all facets of the game.

“If you have a situation where you can move the runner; sac fly, anything to get runners in scoring position or even score runners, we need to capitalize on those opportunities,” Toole said. “Most teams that don’t do that usually don’t win games. We’ve been fortunate enough where we’ve had people step up and come through.”

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