IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa baseball is fielding another impressive outfit under coach Rick Heller early this season. We’ll get an even better idea of where the defending Big Ten Tournament champions stand this weekend.
The Hawkeyes travel to the desert, facing UNVL at Earl E. Wilson Stadium. The Rebels are 11-2 and rank No. 23 nationally in the College Baseball Poll.
Iowa (8-2) will be on the road for the fourth weekend in a row. It’s coming off a series in which it took two of three games against Alabama-Birmingham.
The Hawkeyes entered the year needing to replace some serious firepower from last year’s NCAA Tournament qualifying team. Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Jake Adams, all-Big Ten shortstop Mason McCoy and ace Nick Gallagher left big holes to fill.
Despite the losses, the return of all-conference performers Robert Neustrom and Tyler Cropley provided a solid foundation for this season. They’ve lived up expectations early on.
Neustrom, Baseball America’s preseason Big Ten Player of the Year, leads the Hawkeyes with a .333 average and hits (13), and is second in runs. Cropley, who Wednesday was named to the Johnny Bench watch list (nation’s top catcher), paces the squad with a .930 OPS and 12 RBI.
Sophomore Kyle Crowl has eased the loss of McCoy at shortstop. The Council Bluffs (IA) Lincoln High product has scored a team-best 12 runs to go with an .850 OPS.
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Nick Allgeyer rivals Crowl for best early-season story. The redshirt junior lefty is bouncing back from Tommy John surgery in strong fashion. The Friday night starter is sporting a 0.96 ERA through three starts with 19 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings. His WHIP is under 1.00.
Iowa paces the Big Ten in pitching with a 2.73 team ERA. Its 96 strikeouts are second to Minnesota’s 105.
The Hawkeye bullpen is standing out. Zach Daniels heads the group. The junior from Cedar Rapids (IA) Kennedy High sports a flawless ERA with two saves and nine strikeouts in 8 2/3 innings. Jack Dreyer and Grant Leonard are other reliable relief options, neither having yielded a run this season.
Iowa’s staff will be facing a stiff challenge against Rebels. Their .528 slugging percentage ranks 10th nationally.
First baseman Nick Ames is slugging an obscene .897 and carries an impressive 1.39 OPS on the back of a team-high five homers and 17 RBI. Center fielder Kyle Isbel also has 17 RBI, an .833 slugging percentage and a 1.31 OPS. Shortstop Bryson Stott and Max Smith, the right fielder, also sport OPS’s north of 1.00.
The Hawkeyes will need to avoid the long ball. UNLV ranks eighth in the country with 19 home runs.
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The Rebels bring more than bats to the ballpark.
Friday night starter Alan Strong has struck out 20 and walked only three in 17 2/3 innings. Larry Quaney, Chase Maddux and Trevor Horn have been working with varying success in the 2-4 spots.
Closer Bryan Menendez captains a solid UNLV bullpen. The senior right hander flashes a 1.93 ERA with three saves. He’s struck out 12 and walked none in 9 1/3 innings.
UNLV is 10-1 at home following last weekend’s three-game sweep of Mountain West Conference rival Fresno State. The Rebels captured each game by one run.