BASEBALL: Ball State leads MAC West after series victory
Cardinals sweep Saturday doubleheader
For the first time this year, Ball State University had lost the opening game to a Mid-American Conference series.
It had dominated the MAC East during crossover games, but found itself in a deepening hole to the West Division leading Central Michigan University.
With a potential season-defining doubleheader with the Chippewas on Saturday, coach Greg Beals told the Cardinals now was the time to come together.
"We all had made some mistakes," he said. "It was time for us to man up. I told them, ‘We lost as a team, now we need to get tighter as a team.'"
Ball State put together a great day of baseball Saturday, sweeping the doubleheader and winning its fifth straight MAC series to open the year. The victories pulled the Cardinals (19-21, 11-4) back into a first place in the MAC West.
Ball State didn't blow away Central Michigan (22-15, 11-4), which was undefeated at home until Saturday. Rather, the Cardinals were able to break out of a three-game losing streak with all-around good baseball.
"We pitched the ball really well all weekend," left fielder Kory Benbow said. "We played good defense when we needed to and got some big hits."
In short, Ball State played the kind of team baseball Beals talked about the day before.
The Cardinals put three runs on the board in the first inning of game one of the doubleheader. The runs were enough to chase starter Rick Dodridge from the game and give Ball State starter Kolbrin Vitek enough of a cushion to work with.
Vitek (2-3) threw six scoreless innings, scattering seven hits in one of his best starts of the year.
"The ballpark was to the pitcher's advantage all weekend," the right-hander said. "It was easy to get outs at that park."
Unable to add any more runs, the Cardinals took a 3-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Derek Grabner ran into trouble after two shutout innings of relief, surrendering two runs. But with the tying run on first base, closer Aaron Hammons forced a pop up and won a battle with leadoff batter Billy Anderson, striking him out on eight pitches.
Ball State followed a similar blueprint in game two of the doubleheader. Again it took an early lead, got a quality start from Cal Bowling (3-3) and Hammons closed out a 5-2 victory for his fifth save.
Beals was pleased to see his team come away with a pair of wins, especially close ones.
"I was telling [pitching coach Mike] Stafford on the way to the locker room, those are good, especially when we win them," Beals said. "But it's just good to play when every pitch matters."
First baseman Ian Nielsen led the offense Saturday. The sophomore went 3-for-7 with two RBI and two runs in the doubleheader. He was the only Cardinal to drive in multiple runs.
Benbow said close wins don't mean more to Ball State, but they present a different challenge.
"You've got to stay under control and not try to do too much," Benbow said. "The back half of our bullpen is strong; you breathe a sigh of relief once you get to that."
The Cardinals are off to their best start in MAC plays since 2005 and if the season ended today, they would be the top seed in the conference tournament.
Knowing Central Michigan is a difficult place to have success, Benbow said Ball State is happy to come home with another series victory.
"You don't go up there expecting to sweep," the senior said. "If we win our home series and consistently win series on the road, we'll be in a good position to win the MAC."