2008 overall record 22-33, Big Ten record 10-22, 10th.
If head coach Jack Dahm had his way, coming off of a 4th place conference finish in 2007, 2008 would have been the year his Iowa Hawkeyes showed they have what it takes to be an elite champion contender team. Sometimes in life reality gives you a hard slap in the face, and for the Hawkeye baseball program, falling from 4th to last isn’t exactly a pleasurable experience. In his sixth season Coach Dahm expects a team full of experience, 9 seniors, and youth 13 true or red-shirted freshmen, to use last season as motivation in their quest to become league champions for the first time since 1974.
Coach Dahm has built a team and offense centered on manufacturing runs and play “small-ball”. 2008 saw Iowa hit .316 as a team, 4th best in the Big Ten collecting 578 hits, but only 142 being for extra bases with a total of 21 home runs in 55 games. Only Ohio State hit fewer home runs at 19. What power doesn’t get accomplish, speed surely can. As a team Iowa attempted a league high 176 stolen bases, successfully stealing 138, a feat that also toped the league and was 4th overall in the nation. Consistent hitting and aggressiveness on the bases produce 384 runs which was 4th best amongst the 10 Big Ten teams.
To replicate its offensive success, Coach Dahm will need a player or two to step up and fill the void left by CF Caleb Curry, the teams leading run producer. The graduated Curry led the team with a .398 batting average, led the team and finished for in the conference with 65 RBI, as well as leading the conference with 45 stolen bases in 52 attempts. Another vacancy in the outfield will be in right as Kyle Riffel’s .259 average and 20 stolen bases were loss to graduation.
Kurtis Muller will move over from left to center. Muller made 51 starts, breaking the true freshman record with 47 RBI. Hitting .322 with 4 home runs, and 14 stolen bases and was named to the Ping Baseball freshman all-America team. Muller was consistent in the field and should have no problem making the transition providing solid defense as in 74 chances last season, Muller committed just 1 error. Sophomore Trevor Willis will see time in right field after appearing in 21 games, and hitting .211 in limited time. Muller and Willis will be the only Hawkeye outfielders returning with experience. New faces that expect to battle for playing time are JUCO transfer Ryan Durant, red-shirt freshman Phil Keppler, freshmen Andrew Host and utility freshmen Chett Zeise and Mike McQuillan.
Though the outfield will have quite a few new faces, for Hawkeye fans a glance into the infield will provide familiar and proven players as 4 of the 5 primary starters in 2008 return in 2009. First base will be manned by senior T.J. Cataldo. Cataldo started 33 games at first base in 2008, finished tied atop the team with 4 triples, hitting .270 in the process. To Cataldo’s right is an open competition at second base, returning infielder Zach McCool was the leading candidate heading into spring practice. In 2008 McCool hit .321 with 9 RBI in 13 starts. Zeise, McQuillan, and another freshman, Corey Gleiden will provide competition for McCool.
Defensively and offensively the spark plugs of the Hawkeye infield will come from the left side. After 48th round draft pick of the Boston Red Sox, senior Kevin Hoef decided to turn down the money and return to Iowa City for a fourth and final year. A career .321 hitter, Hoef has been Iowa’s primary third baseman since he stepped on campus as a freshman. Getting better year after year, Hoef took giant strides in becoming a complete player, hitting .357 with 9 doubles, 4 triples, and 3 home runs, stealing 17 of 25 bases successfully, posting a .460 on-base percentage to go along with 31 runs batted in.
Providing more leadership in the line-up, senior Justin Toole returns shortstop. Toole a third team pre-season all-America selection by Ping Baseball is one of Iowa’s most consistent hitters, establishing a school-record 25-game hitting streak last season. Toole the two time 3rd team All-Big Ten, is coming off of a strong season that saw him collect 87 hits, second in Iowa single-season history in process of hitting .395 overall. Toole stole 24 bases in 31 attempts, had 15 two-baggers, knocked 49 runs, and struck out just 13 times in 220 at-bats. Toole’s 2008 production has landed him a spot on the Brooks Wallace 2009 Watch List.
Rounding out the infield horn is a player Coach Dahm believes can be the best defensive catcher in the Big Ten. After a 2008 injury plagued season, Tyson Blaser returns behind the plate as the teams starting catcher. Reflecting his toughness, Blaser played through an injured thumb, a hamstring strain, and an injury to his MCL. With a summer off to rest and gain health, the junior Blaser is looking to improve on a season that saw him hit .320 with 10 doubles and 14 RBI. Senior utility player Kody McManis, who took over for Blaser when he was unable to play, will be backing up Blaser throughout the season. In the first extended period of playing time of his career, McManis hit .313 in 24 starts over four positions. McManis hit .321 in conference play that saw him drive in 11 of his 13 total RBI. If not used behind the plate McManis is versatile enough to find his way onto the field and be a valuable part of Coach Dahm’s bench.
Throwing to either McManis or Blaser is a pitching staff that will need to improve if Iowa is to make a return trip to the Big Ten Tournament. As a staff the Hawkeyes’ pitchers had a collective 6.63 ERA, only Northwestern had a higher team ERA at 6.94. The high ERA is a result of Iowa allowing a conference high 574 hits, combining with sub-par control in the 69 wild pitches tossed that also lead the conference. Iowa finished next to last again in both runs allowed at 409 and base on balls with 247. The Hawkeyes combined for a league low 2 complete games, and only had 9 games end in saves.
At the front end of the rotation expect to see junior Michael Jacobs who started 11 games in 2008. The lefty from Lenexa, Kansas, threw the second most innings on the team at 55.2 in 12 appearances. Allowing 41 earned runs, Jacobs pot a 6.63 ERA and a 3-5 record. Sophomore Zach Kenyon will be looked to join Jacobs as a weekend starter. As a freshman, Kenyon saw action in 19 games, with seven starts. He finished with a 7.52 ERA, a 1-3 record, and struck out 21 in 40.2 innings. Senior Wes Freie, the team’s primary DH last season, will get a chance to become a regular in the rotation as he returns to the mound in 2009. Freie made four appearances in relief with two starts his freshman season.
Newcomers to the Iowa program include JUCO transfer Zach Robertson from Iowa Central will push the returning Hawkeye pitchers for a spot on the weekends. At Iowa Central Robertson throw 82 strikeouts, posted a 4.20 ERA, throwing 4 complete games. Freshmen Phil Schreiber, Nick Brown and Jarred Hippen will also be throwing their hat in the ring, and if not seeing action on weekends, will be looking to grab mid-week starting spots.
Providing stability to the bull-pen will be senior Mike Schurz. Schurz returns to the Hawkeye pen after missing 2008 due to Tommy John surgery. In 2007 Schurz led Iowa in saves with 9, and also led the time with 6 wins. In 29 innings pitched Schurz had 35 strikeouts, allowed 32 hits, and saw an ERA of 3.72 established. Before the ball is turned to Schurz, senior Steve Turnbill, and junior Kyle Heim will be turn to as step-up men by Coach Dahm. In 2008 the two combined for 43 appearances, 26 and 17 respectively. Turnbill struck out 31 batters in 40.2 innings, to go along with a 7.30 ERA, Heim had an ERA of 6.27 with a 2-1 record. Dahm would like to see both show finer control as each allowed 24 base on balls.
Other options coming out of the bullpen are left-handers senior Matt Douglas (3.2 IP, 12.27 ERA in 2008), sophomore Jeff Pacha (10.0, 4.50), red-shirt freshman Nic Jensen and freshman Patrick Brennan. Along with talented right-handed pitchers sophomore Kevin Lee (4.0, 9.00) and freshman Sean Flanagan.
Like most teams in the Big Ten, The Hawkeyes have the offense to finish in the top 6 and gain a spot in the Big Ten’s post-season tournament. Success will come down to pitching. Losing its top two pitchers hurt, but Coach Dahm believes the freshmen class is talented and expects them, along with JUCO transfer Robertson to provide results that escaped the 2008 Hawkeyes. Gaining Schurz back from injury instantly improves the quality of the bullpen. Schurz was one of the op three closers in the conference in 2007.
Toole and Hoef provide the conference best infield duo at third and shortstop, with the absence of Curry, if an outfielder can emerged and provide solid production the offense the offense won’t miss a beat and again should finish in the top 5 of the Big Ten on their consistent hitting, and aggressive base-running.
Defensively the Hawkeyes are in the middle of the pack and provide average fielding. Their 80 errors, and .960 fielding percentage both finished 5th in the conference. Due to rotating catchers with the injuries to Blaser, Iowa allowed a league high 86% of opponents to steal a base successfully only throwing out 16 of 78 attempts. The Hawkeyes also committed league highs in passed balls with 16 and wild pitches at 69. Having Blaser return as the full-time starter at catcher should help limit these problems.
If the Hawkeyes pitchers can sustain the leads their bats will provide before turning to Schurz this team can be successful. A true #1 pitcher would help the team immensely, and with the number of pitchers on the roster, Dahm might differ his rotation weekend to weekend in hopes to provide favorable match-ups. Right now with the bats, Schurz returning, and potential of a large freshman class, the Hawkeyes appear to be able to fight for the last Big Ten Tournament spot.
Chris Webb is a writer for The Buckeye Nine which covers Ohio State Baseball. He will be covering the Big Ten conference for our site this year as he will be doing a season preview on each team and writing weekly previews/recaps. You can check out his site by clicking here.