Patrick Lala kicked the dirt in the Iowa bullpen when he wasn’t cracking jokes, snagging foul balls or making an occasional toss to keep his arm loose.
The junior reliever retired the first six Michigan State hitters he faced with such ease Sunday that it seemed Lala couldn’t get back to the mound fast enough when he strolled to the bullpen for a few extra throws during the bottom of the seventh.
But staying loose took on a different meaning for Lala by the time the Hawkeyes were finished with the biggest inning of a 19-7 victory against the Big Ten-leading Spartans at Banks Field.
Iowa’s offense exploded for 10 runs in the bottom of the seventh. Lala spent the inning kicking dirt, cracking jokes, snagging foul balls and making an occasional toss to keep his arm loose.
“Me, (and pitchers) Kevin Lee and Nick Brown were down there joking around,” Lala said. “I’m a pretty loose guy, so I just like to mess around with all the guys.”
The Hawkeyes (10-15, 1-2 Big Ten) needed some levity after getting shackled by the Spartans (17-7, 2-1) during the first two games of the series. Iowa consistently put runners on base Friday night and Saturday and consistently left them there, stranding 25 in a pair of losses, including 16 in scoring position.
The two losses to start the conference season put an added measure of importance on Sunday’s game for Iowa. Yes, the gun just sounded to start the Big Ten race. But the Hawkeyes didn’t like the thought of heading to Illinois next weekend without a win in league play.
“That’s the biggest thing — getting that first win,” Iowa coach Jack Dahm said. “If you go 0-3, you’re thinking about it all week. No matter what we say as coaches, we want to say take it one game at a time, but the bottom line is the guys feel it if you’re 0-3.”
That’s why Dahm tinkered with his lineup. That’s why he went to his bullpen early after Michigan State started hitting Matt Dermody during his second trip through the order. That’s why Dahm didn’t wait until the late innings to hand the ball to Lala, who entered Sunday with a team-best 0.57 earned run average.
Iowa scored three runs in the bottom of the fifth to take a 6-5 lead. Dahm sent Lala to the mound to start the sixth. The Hawkeyes led 19-5 in the ninth when the first Spartan reached base against Lala.
“That was huge,” Dahm said. “He threw up a bunch of hoops and just shut them down and really overpowered them. He did an outstanding job. Once we got the lead back, we got that momentum and he kept it in our dugout.”
Iowa’s offense produced its highest scoring total in Big Ten play since a 22-3 win against Wisconsin in 1989. The 19 runs were the most for the Hawkeyes since the 2010 season opener. Iowa’s 17 hits were also a season high.
Mike McQuillan and Tyson Blaser each had three hits. Kurt Lee, Phil Keppler, Chett Zeise and Trevor Wills all had a pair of hits. The Hawkeyes capitalized on five Michigan State errors, tying the game in the fifth on a passed ball and taking the lead later in the inning on an unearned run that scored when Keith Brand drove in Zeise with a safety squeeze.
Iowa blew the game open in the seventh when the Hawkeyes sent 14 hitters to the plate and 10 scored after five hits and a pair of Michigan State errors.
The Spartans used seven pitchers on the day. None of the six who worked in relief lasted more than an inning.
Meanwhile, Lala kept mowing down Michigan State hitters. The Kirkwood transfer, whose fastball has been clocked in the low 90s this season, sat down the first nine Spartans he faced before allowing a leadoff double in the ninth.
“I just really tried to get on top of guys and really make sure I’m not giving them good stuff to hit,” he said. “It’s just what you practice every day — try to paint the corners and get on top of people.”
“That’s what we expect from Patrick Lala every time he goes out,” Blaser said. “When he goes on the mound, we play with a little confidence because he’s going to fill up the zone and guys are going to have a hard time getting good swings on him.”