IOWA CITY, Iowa — Major League Baseball scouts likely will stay in their seats a little later than normal during the Big Ten Tournament’s primetime first-round game on Wednesday.
No. 5-seeded Iowa (34-19, 15-9) faces No. 4-seeded Maryland (34-19, 15-9) at 7:30 p.m. CT in Bloomington, Ind. The primary matchup pits Iowa first baseman Jake Adams, the unanimous Big Ten Player of the Year, against Brian Shaffer, who was tabbed as the league’s top pitcher.
Adams, a junior-college transfer, ranks second nationally and first in the Big Ten in home runs with 24. He paces the league in RBI (65), hits (73) and total bases (159) and ranks second in runs scored (48). He’s fourth in batting average (.344) and has won the league’s player of the week award three times this season.
What makes him so good?
“Just his ability to do it on a day-to-day basis,” said Iowa shortstop Mason McCoy, a second-team All-Big Ten selection. “I think in [batting practice] he’s always hitting the ball hard, hitting home runs. In the game it carries over, that’s the biggest thing.
“I think a lot of scouts are seeing it. His consistency is incredible. A player that I’ve never played with before, and his ability to do it every day is just tremendous.”
If there’s a counter to Adams, it’s Shaffer (7-3). The 6-foot-5 junior right-hander leads the Big Ten with a 1.67 ERA, ranks second in strikeouts (98) and third in opponent batting average (.206). He has 98 strikeouts to just 17 walks.
In 2016, Shaffer pitched all nine innings of a 4-1 Maryland victory in Iowa City. Shaffer scattered 5 hits, struck out 7 and issued no walks.
“He’s tough and we know that going into it,” Iowa coach Rick Heller said. “We have to play a clean game, and we’re going to have to eliminate free bases. It’s probably going to be a low-scoring game with Nick [Gallagher] and Shaffer on the mound. We just know we’re going to have to take advantage of the chances that we get.”
Gallagher (8-1) will pitch for Iowa. He was a league-leading 5-0 against Big Ten competition this season and posted a 2.59 ERA. Gallagher went 6-0 with a 2.08 ERA in his last nine starts. He beat Maryland twice last year.
“Our offense is going to have their work cut out for them, and obviously Maryland always has a good hitting lineup,” said Gallagher, a junior. “I’m going to have to throw a really good game to hold them down, but we’re confident we can get the job done.”
“I’m looking forward to beating Maryland right away in the first game with Nick Gallagher on the mound,” Adams said. “I know he’s going to get it done for us.”
Iowa’s confidence is evident based on how the Hawkeyes completed the season. Iowa won its last four Big Ten series and has taken nine of its last 12 league games. The 34 victories are the second-most by the Hawkeyes in 27 years.
Iowa players have hit 58 home runs, the program’s high since 1999. In 2013 — the year before Heller’s arrival — the Hawkeyes totaled two. Among Big Ten schools, Iowa ranks in the top three in eight major offensive categories.
McCoy, outfielder Robert Neustrom and catcher Tyler Cropley joined Gallagher on the All-Big Ten second team, which was announced Tuesday.
“Our guys are super confident,” Heller said. “I think we understand our limitations and we understand where we’re at. For us and our pitching situation, we need to stay out of the losers bracket. We just try to be realistic with our guys all year long. We have to play a great game to beat Shaffer, so let’s go do it.”
The Iowa-Maryland winner will play the Nebraska-Purdue winner at 7:30 p.m. CT Thursday. The losers meet at 1:30 p.m. Thursday.
With an RPI of 94, the Hawkeyes likely will need to win the tournament title to clinch an NCAA tourney berth.