IOWA CITY, Iowa — After a regular season during which things didn’t go the way Iowa’s pitching staff envisioned, Josh Martsching saw only two options for the postseason.
Sink or swim.
“Luckily we started swimming,” Martsching said.
Looking for a reason why Iowa is in the NCAA Tournament? Start with the pitching staff.
A group that struggled in February and March peaked at the right time to help the Hawkeyes win the Big Ten Tournament in Bloomington, Ind.
“As of late, it’s pitching great,” said freshman outfielder Robert Neustrom. “Everything has been great. What more can you ask for, really?”
‘We weren’t a strength at all’
Iowa entered the season in transition. Twenty new faces were on the roster. The Hawkeyes wanted to lean on their starters as the team figured out its identity.
It didn’t work out that way, as returning ace C.J. Eldred threw in only one game. The right-hander missed most of the season after undergoing ulnar collateral ligament surgery in March. The Hawkeyes allowed at least 6 runs in 10 of their first 18 games.
Rock bottom came just before the Eldred news broke. Iowa gave up 32 runs in a four-game stretch against Northern Illinois, Villanova, Bucknell and Lehigh. The Hawkeyes’ 4.40 ERA ranks 103rd nationally.
“At the beginning of the year coach [Rick] Heller always talked [that] the strength would be our pitching staff,” Martsching said. “At the beginning of the year we weren’t a strength at all.”
The pitching staff found stability with Nick Gallagher, Ryan Erickson and Martsching. Gallagher, Iowa’s ace, is 8-1 with a 3.39 ERA. Erickson, the team’s No. 2 starter, is 3-3 with a 2.96 ERA. Martsching thrives in the bullpen, with 7 saves and a 2.36 ERA.
“Having [Erikson] pitching well down the stretch gives us a chance to be here,” Heller said. “Josh Martsching has been outstanding all year long and is really pitching as well as he possibly could. You have to feel good about that.”
Confidence was more of a hope than a reality for most of the pitching staff entering the Big Ten Tournament. But being backed into a corner — lose and the season ends — brought out their best.
“There is no option,” Martsching said. “You have to win to keep playing.”
Standing out in the Big Ten Tournament
The pitching staff was up and down in the tourney, allowing at least 8 runs twice. But the staff came up big in nearly every key situation.
Martsching worked out of bases-loaded jams against Maryland and Nebraska in the first two games. He threw 5 2/3 innings of scoreless relief in a 7-5, 13-inning win over Minnesota.
Erickson didn’t allow a run in 7 2/3 innings against Nebraska, and Zach Daniels escaped a bases-loaded situation without giving up a run against the Cornhuskers.
“Watching them throw was something,” said first baseman Jake Adams.
Iowa (38-20) won with its bats during the regular season. The pitchers carried the team in the conference tournament. The Hawkeyes want to see what happens if it all comes together against Houston in the NCAA tourney opener on Friday (8 p.m. ET/ESPNU).
“We are explosive on offense and our pitchers are dominant,” Neustrom said. “If we keep that going we can be pretty special.”