Cole McDonald let out a long sigh. Robert Neustrom pursed his lips and stared into the distance at nothing in particular. Their ever-optimistic coach, Rick Heller, managed only a couple of smiles.
Such is the mood among an Iowa baseball team that knows it could have done more. Should have done more. And now — following a 2-0 loss to Ohio State on Thursday morning that made the Hawkeyes the first team eliminated from the Big Ten tournament — a group that appeared a lock for another NCAA tournament two weeks ago is resigned to the fact that its season is probably over.
“You don’t get any points for close losses or playing well and losing,” Heller said. “Unfortunately that’s kind of what we did.”
The late-season fade came like a comebacker, quick and unexpected. The Hawkeyes had just won a series against then-No. 12 Oklahoma State and already had done the same against then-No. 22 Illinois and No. 7 Michigan. They split with then-No. 11 Indiana and had lost just two games by more than three runs since mid-March after an 8-1 start.
But two defeats to Northwestern — which finished 12th in the 13-team Big Ten — sent Iowa’s RPI plummeting. And with last year’s tournament champion needing another run to get back in realistic range for an NCAA at-large bid, the Hawkeyes instead left Omaha quietly.
One hit in a 2-1, 10-inning loss to Michigan on Wednesday. Then the setback against the Buckeyes in which Iowa managed just four hits while being shut out for the fifth time this spring.
“These last two games we were pretty pitiful offensively,” said Neustrom, a junior outfielder from Sioux City, Iowa, who was Baseball America’s Big Ten preseason player of the year. “We know we’re better than that. We had a special group of guys, really special team. It was a roller coaster at times. We played really well at times. There were times we felt like a top-five team in the nation and there were times where we felt like today.”
Sixth-seeded Iowa (33-20) entered Thursday with an RPI in the mid-70s, which will likely keep it out of the NCAA tournament after the Hawkeyes went two of the past three years. Their lone miss during that stretch was 2016, when they drew a sizable walk-up crowd in Omaha after making a run to the finals as the No. 8 seed.
Regional selections will be announced Monday morning.
“You’re going to consider it just kind of a lost season because we had a team to put wins on the board at the end of the season when we had to. It just didn’t happen,” said McDonald, a junior who allowed one earned run in 4 1⁄3 innings Thursday. “It’s just really disappointing because we all know we can keep on playing, we just didn’t play well at the end of the season.
“More than likely we’ll be done unless a miracle happens. That’s just how it goes and it’s just really disappointing.”
Iowa graduates just four seniors, though all were regular contributors this season. All-Big Ten first-team catcher Tyler Cropley — who led the team with a .342 batting average and 50 RBIs — joins departing infielders Matt Hoeg and Austin Guzzo, while reliever Nick Nelsen paced the Hawkeyes with 28 appearances and posted a 3.60 ERA.
“I have no problem with how we approached things,” Heller said. “But it will hurt simply because you know that you were right there and had a shot and you wanted this group to experience that.”
No. 5 Indiana 6, No. 8 Michigan State 5, 10 innings: Wyatt Cross’ bloop single scored Cole Barr from second base in the bottom of the 10th inning to lift the Hoosiers in an elimination game. Indiana tied it in the ninth on Matt Gorski’s two-out, three-run homer off Mitchell Tyranski. Michigan State’s Mason Erla took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, and the Spartans led 5-2 in the ninth. Tyranski, who came on with runners on first and second, struck out Matt Lloyd before Gorski homered.
No. 2 Purdue 5, No. 3 Michigan 4: Milo Beam reached third base on a freak play in the bottom of the ninth inning and scored on Evan Warden’s single, giving the Boilermakers a walk-off win. William Tribucher walked Beam on a wild pitch, and Beam didn’t hesitate to take second as catcher Harrison Salter had trouble finding the ball. No one was covering third, so Beam took another base on the play. Tribucher intentionally walked the next two batters to load the bases before Warden sent a chopper up the middle to win it.