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Crimson Query with Black Heart Gold Pants: BASEBALL EDITION

Indiana baseball heads to Kevin Costner's backyard this weekend, or wherever the Iowa Hawkeyes play their home games. Hayden's_Aviators of BlackHeartGoldPants.com was nice enough to help us out with our first baseball version of Crimson Query.

As a note, Iowa could never be confused for Heaven, which is the only thing that keeps Field of Dreams from being a perfect movies. Also, if Ray's farm had been in Indiana instead of Iowa, he wouldn't have had financial trouble because his corn would have been Indiana corn and it would have tasted good and people would have bought it and he would have had more money... But I digress.

1. The first thing that jumps out at me when I look at Iowa’s stats is the pitching. They have a 2.34 ERA as a team, which is 6th in the nation, and must be pitching extremely well to contact considering that they only strike out 6.85 batters per game. What makes the pitching staff so effective?

Hayden's_Aviators: I think, by and large, Iowa's pitching staff just has a lot of live arms and they're tough to square up. In the rotation, Calvin Mathews was Iowa's ace last year, and averaged 7.4 K/9, which is down this year to 5.5 K/9, but he's still been very effective at the back of the rotation (1 ER in 26 IP). Tyler Peyton is averaging about a strikeout per inning at the top, and Blake Hickman in the middle of the rotation can hit the mid-90s, in spite of averaging only 6.4 K/9. So two pitchers accounting for a lot of Iowa's innings that don't necessarily strike out a lot of batters definitely have the capability.

2. The Hawkeye offense, on the other hand, seems like a middle-of-the-road type attack. Four players getting regular at-bats are hitting .311 or higher, but the next highest batting average from guys with 50+ at-bats is .246. If the Hoosiers get through the top of the lineup, are they safe for an inning or two, or is the Iowa offense more complete than the numbers suggest?

Hayden's_Aviators: Offense has been a grind for Iowa this year, no doubt. On top of the drop-off in batting averages, Iowa only has 39 extra-base hits this season in 20 games. Even if the entire lineup was batting over .300, or somehow getting on base closer to a .400 clip, I would still question any team's ability to post a solid Big Ten campaign relying that much on station-to-station baseball. Now, the bottom of the lineup has been key in some rallies in the non-conference slate, so I wouldn't write them off totally. I think they've all shown flashes, but without much power anywhere in the Iowa lineup, Hoosier fans can probably remain calm until there are multiple runners in scoring position.

3. Who are some Iowa players that Indiana fans should worry about this weekend?

Hayden's_Aviators: As my last two answers suggest, IU fans should be most concerned about Iowa's pitching. All three starters have been great this year, but Mathews is tough to beat with a #3 starter, having posted a 0.35 ERA in five starts this year, and coming off a year where he was Iowa's top-of-the-line stopper (until injured last April). Out of the bullpen, newcomer Ryan Erickson has been dominant at times. His numbers are creeping toward the unimpressive/erratic side (e.g., 1.38 WHIP), but he's still got a 2.16 ERA, and has absolutely nailed down multiple games with stretches of shutout baseball. On offense, JUCO All-American Joel Booker has been intriguing and shown some power, but Iowa goes as Eric Toole (.337 Avg., 4 2B, 2 3B, 13/15 SB/ATT) goes. If he gets on base, he's very difficult to keep from scoring. 

4. Iowa comes into this weekend at 14-6, but the schedule makes you wonder just how good they are through 20 games. They’ve only played two games at home, but they have not played a single team in the Top-25 of the D1Baseball poll. And they split the 4-game set with Houston Baptist, which is probably the best team they’ve played to date. How good are they? Can they contend in the Big Ten?

Hayden's_Aviators: Frankly, I don't see Iowa contending for a regular-season championship, unless they find a significant run-scoring spark. Now, last season, they were basically the 1996 Colorado Rockies in the non-conference, relying on double-digit run outputs to win a lot of games. That, of course, cooled off in B1G play. I think their pitching makes them a genuine threat to win any series, but it's hard to not see them dropping several games if the pitching staff has to sustain a 2.00-to-3.00 ERA in the conference. They also have a tough schedule (Indiana and Nebraska, albeit at home, and roadies against Maryland and Michigan). I think they're good enough to comfortably qualify for the conference tournament, even with the tough schedule. I also think Iowa's pitching makes it a threat in the conference tourney, where they managed to grab a W and stick around a bit last year, even with Mathews on the shelf.

5. Big Ten Question: Nebraska and Maryland have been outstanding baseball additions to the Big Ten that came in at the right time as Indiana has had its best couple years in school history and as Illinois is turning itself into a national power. The conference now has at least four formidable teams with real great chances of qualifying for the postseason in the foreseeable future. And the fact that Indiana and Illinois, and any other team in the conference who makes a huge jump in the future, will have two more quality teams on the schedule should ensure that the days where the only Big Ten team who gets into the field of 64 is the conference champ are gone.

Remove money from the equation. Would you agree that, on the field only, baseball is the sport that has benefitted most from Big Ten expansion?

Hayden's_Aviators: Among sports I know absolutely anything about, I think that I would easily agree with you there. Basketball has pretty much been a quality wash (Maryland +, Rutgers -, Nebraska mostly - but some +). Football has seemingly made a little jump, but I don't think anything helps Big Ten football more than Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State returning to national prominence. Nebraska hasn't been cracking the top ten or anything. Add to that the low place baseball was coming from, and the fact that 40% of B1G teams ranked or receiving votes in the USA Today Top 25 are newcomers (Maryland and Nebraska, to go with Illinois, Indiana, and...IOWA, SONNN!), I think baseball has gotten the most competitive quality out of expansion. Plus Rutgers.

6. Have a prediction for the Hoosiers and Hawkeyes this weekend?

Hayden's_Aviators: Sure. I think Iowa takes two out of three in Iowa City. Last season, the Hawks got things rolling earlier by taking 2/3 from Nebraska at home. I think they do it again, dropping the opener, but taking the last two behind Hickman and Mathews. If this prediction is challenged for homerism, incompetence, or lunacy, then I will reference BHGP's MANCOTT of all things Indiana baseball for the savage misappropriation of Field of Dreams, and will then call for an Iowa SWEEEEEEP. Up to you.

Thanks to Hayden's_Aviators and Black Heart Gold Pants. You can check out a Q&A I did with them here. And if you're looking for a new account to follow, get at them on Twitter, @BHGP.