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Robert Neustrom: 'We're better than that' Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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In the bowels of TD Ameritrade Park, moments after Thursday’s painful season-ending loss to Ohio State, Robert Neustrom was asked to summarize the 2018 Hawkeye baseball season.

“It was a roller-coaster,” the Iowa right-fielder said. “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.

“But that’s baseball.”

Rick Heller’s fifth Iowa City season was like his previous four — full of intrigue. The Hawkeyes (33-20) again had Iowa fans’ attention for much of the spring. Heller’s squad navigated through treacherous weather conditions and a tough conference slate, but some late-season slip-ups kept the Hawkeyes from their third regional in four years.

We’ll put a bow on the 2018 campaign, and flip forward to what’s ahead. Here are 10 final thoughts on Iowa baseball’s season:

A missed opportunity

If you had told Heller in February that his bunch would be competing for a regional spot all the way into the conference tournament, he would’ve certainly taken it. The Hawkeyes had numerous holes to fill and needed big years out of several unproven pieces.

But given the way things ultimately unfolded, it was no accident that a haze of disappointment lingered in Thursday’s postgame press conference.

Heller noted that “you don’t get any points for close losses or playing well and losing.” Starting pitcher Cole McDonald called 2018 “kind of a lost season.”

That’s because the Hawkeyes weren’t just loosely in the postseason picture. They were smack-dab in the middle of it for much of the final two months, until a crushing series loss at Northwestern and an uninspiring Omaha showing derailed those chances.

What’ll sting the most is Iowa survived the gauntlet. Stuck with the short end of a severely unbalanced Big Ten Conference schedule, the Hawkeyes came out on the other end OK with series wins over Ohio State, Illinois and Michigan — as well as a two-game split with Indiana.

A resilient early-May weekend against Oklahoma State, where Iowa rallied for the series victory after dropping the Friday contest, seemed to cement its at-large case. D1Baseball.com writer Kendall Rogers called the showing a “bid solidifier” for the Hawkeyes “barring a meltdown.”

It’s fair to question why Iowa’s RPI didn’t look a little better heading into that fateful Northwestern series, but the bottom line is everyone inside the Hawkeye program knew what would happen if Iowa faltered against the conference bottom-feeders down the stretch. Heller stressed it repeatedly. The players did, too.

So when the Hawkeyes dropped the series in Evanston — and their RPI tumbled a precious 14 spots — it’s easy to understand the disappointment. Even more so after this week’s two-and-out showing in Omaha, where Iowa mustered just five hits in 19 innings.

A less circuitous route to the bubble’s wrong side may have generated less pain, but consider that the biggest sign of program progress. Regional berths were pipedreams before Heller's arrival. Now, they're slowly becoming the expectation.  

But still heading the right way

Now, for the flipside of Iowa’s 2018 narrative.

The Hawkeyes’ roster turnover heading into this season was quite extensive. The professional ranks gobbled up numerous pivotal pieces from Iowa’s 2017 regional run, names like Jake Adams, Mason McCoy, Nick Gallagher and Ryan Erickson. Throw in injured starter C.J. Eldred, as well as closer Josh Martsching.      

That list includes the best power hitter in program history, a team captain full of reliability, three trusted weekend starters and Iowa’s most dominant reliever.

There’s a reason Big Ten coaches slotted the Hawkeyes sixth in the preseason poll. There’s a reason neither of the sport’s top two publications — Baseball America and D1Baseball.com — projected the Hawkeyes as a preseason regional team.

This year could’ve easily been of the rebuilding sort. But under Heller’s guidance, the Hawkeyes kept the program trending in the right direction. Splattered throughout the Big Ten’s recent history are instances where a team puts a regional run together one year, only to completely fall off the next.

Illinois won 50 games and reached the supers in 2015, then combined for 51 wins over the next two seasons. Ohio State was a regional team in 2016, then won 22 games the following year. Maryland and Nebraska — two regional teams in 2017 — both missed the conference tournament this season.

But Iowa didn’t drop off. The Hawkeyes made it five straight 30-win campaigns under Heller, and are one of just three programs to qualify for each of the last five Big Ten Tournaments.         

The expectation has ascended beyond those benchmarks, but this year proved Iowa can sustain crucial losses and still immediately bounce back.

Another key JUCO find

Heller’s Iowa tenure is full of JUCO success stories — see Adams, McCoy, Joel Booker and others.

Add Tyler Cropley to the list.

After a decent junior season hitting fifth in a deep lineup, the former Iowa Western catcher soared in 2018. An ill-timed thumb injury plagued Cropley down the stretch, but he still stood out as Iowa’s most consistent hitter from start to finish.

The senior catcher led the team in hits (68), average (.342), slugging (.578), RBIs (50), doubles (20) and on-base percentage (.449), regularly delivering when the Hawkeyes needed him most. Cropley’s two walk-off homers — a grand slam to beat Bradley and a two-run shot to top Michigan — are some of the season’s most memorable snapshots.

All that offensive production arrived without a day off. Cropley played left field in most midweek games, but was a warrior behind the plate on weekends. He handled a pitching staff full of new pieces and provided consistent leadership throughout.

At some point, Cropley will hear his named call during next month’s MLB draft. This productive year is why.

The horse Iowa needed

With Gallagher, Erickson and Eldred all departed, Iowa’s weekend rotation was a cloudy scene heading into 2018. The Hawkeyes needed a Friday ace.

Nick Allgeyer was the perfect remedy.

Heller and company figured the redshirt junior southpaw would bounce back well from Tommy John surgery, but Allgeyer’s season went about as well as expected.

On his best days, Allgeyer was downright filthy. On his worst days, he at least gave the Hawkeyes a chance to win. That’s all you can ask for from your weekend horse.

His 2.41 ERA and 95 strikeouts — second most in Iowa single-season history — earned the southpaw first-team all-Big Ten honors. Allgeyer will almost certainly have a choice to make with next month’s draft, a decision he’s earned after a phenomenal year.  

A peculiar season

Iowa had high hopes for Brady Schanuel this year. The Hawkeyes considered it a monumental win, when the right-hander chose to pass on the Philadelphia Phillies’ 20th-round offer last June and come to Iowa City.

But Schanuel’s junior year didn’t unfold as planned. His decision on what’s next now becomes one of the most interesting aspects of Iowa’s offseason.

The right-hander, who boasts an impressive arsenal and can run it up into the mid-90s, likely planned on bouncing to the draft after one Hawkeye year — and Schanuel could still do so despite his 5.94 ERA.

He’s listed as Baseball America’s No. 413 overall prospect and has already been drafted twice.

On the other hand, Schanuel struggled with control and efficiency for essentially the entire back half of Iowa’s schedule. It wasn’t just a bad outing here or there, rather a stretch of five straight starts without any success.

A return to Iowa might be the best bet developmental-wise, but Schanuel would obviously lose significant financial leverage if he came back for his senior year. A decision that likely once seemed clear-cut, now has some twists.  

The next ace?

If Allgeyer and Schanuel do depart for the professional ranks, Iowa won’t have to search far for its most trusted weekend arm.

Atop the list of most improved players in 2018 was Cole McDonald, who shook off a dismal sophomore season and bounced back with authority.

The right-hander started the year as the Hawkeyes’ biggest rotation question mark, and ended the year as the staff’s solid No. 2 option. McDonald finished with a 3.23 ERA over 55 2/3 innings, holding his own during Iowa’s run through the meat of its Big Ten schedule.

An injury scare late in the year knocked him a bit off track, but McDonald should enter 2019 with a wealth of confidence.

Freshmen report

Iowa’s four freshman arms all had some sort of role in year one, from weekend guy to bullpen arm.

Headlining the quarter was southpaw Jack Dreyer, who took some huge steps late in the season as a Sunday starter. The Johnston product had a 1.69 ERA in starts against Oklahoma State, Northwestern and Penn State, finally delivering on the potential Iowa coaches knew he had.

It wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Dreyer in the rotation come opening weekend 2019.

Cam Baumann and Ben Probst saw consistent action in relief, each experiencing success mixed with struggles. Both had chances to throw meaningful innings, and will be counted upon in more of those situations moving forward.

Unfortunate news exists with Trenton Wallace, who was Iowa’s midweek starter and seemed to be finding a groove late in the year until injury struck. After exiting his May 1 start versus Missouri with forearm tightness, there’s a good chance Wallace will need Tommy John surgery.

He may be able to hit some in 2019 if that’s the case, but Wallace’s pitching prowess wouldn’t return until 2020.

Bullpen improvement

It appeared one of Iowa’s strengths preseason, but the Hawkeye bullpen was often an adventure this season. There weren’t a whole lot of trusted options behind Nick Nelsen and Zach Daniels — and even Daniels sputtered a bit as the season wound down.

Grant Judkins turned into a nice relief option, but a hamstring problem hampered him until midway through the Big Ten schedule. Guys like Shane Ritter and Kyle Shimp never materialized — Shimp eventually shut down due to injury — and Grant Leonard lost some luster after a nice start.

Nelsen has graduated. Daniels could have a draft decision to make. And Judkins could move to the weekend rotation depending on what Schanuel and Allgeyer do. That means Iowa could need significant reinforcements in its 2019 bullpen.

Professional outlook

The MLB draft puts college baseball coaches in a tough spot. On one hand, it can significantly alter your upcoming roster by snatching away a bevy of important guys. But on the other, your program’s brand expands when draft picks pile up.

Heller will encounter just that next month, when the draft kicks off (June 4-6). As many as five Hawkeyes could be drafted, as well as Iowa signee and current Kirkwood shortstop Korry Howell.

Spearheading that class is Neustrom, who could become Iowa’s highest drafted position player since 1992. The right-fielder is ranked No. 190 on Baseball America’s top 500 and is the likeliest to go professional among Iowa’s juniors.

Cropley is gone, too, as a senior, and Allgeyer, Schanuel and Daniels could follow as well. Couple those players with the four Hawkeyes drafted last year, and it’s clear Iowa’s expanding brand is paying off.

Flipping ahead

With so many moving parts, it’s hard to tell exactly what Iowa’s 2019 team will look like. There will undoubtedly be giant holes to fill and new leaders to find. But this season made one thing clear:

The bar has been raised inside the Iowa program. Regional expectations are no longer a sporadic hope, but a yearly occurrence.

No matter the turnover, no matter the changes, players donning black and gold are gunning for the postseason. 

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for The Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.

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