BASEBALL: Ball State slugs away elimination
Cardinals continue season with MAC Tournament victory
CHILLICOTHE, Ohio – Kolbrin Vitek jogged in from the bullpen across the scorched field turf of VA Memorial Stadium, the last card coach Greg Beals had in his hand.
Beals called on the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year, suddenly turned bullpen ace, with the Cardinals' season resting in the balance.
Ball State held a three-run advantage Thursday with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning against Ohio University in an elimination game at the MAC Tournament. Gauntlett Eldemire, the Bobcats' star, represented the tying run.
Eldemire dug in against Vitek, hoping to put one good swing on one fastball to extend the game and Ohio's season.
The fastball never came and the all-conference center fielder flailed at a 1-2 breaking ball to end the game. Vitek had locked down a 13-10 victory for Ball State on the second day of the MAC Tournament for his third career save, extending the Cardinals' stay in Chillicothe, Ohio.
Ball State (29-28) will play Bowling Green State University at 9 a.m. Friday in another elimination game.
The victory was just the second in six games for the Cardinals and Vitek, typically a starting pitcher, had to be called on to get the final out of both of them.
Knowing Ball State needed just one more out, catcher Zach Dygert called for Vitek's strength, his breaking ball.
"We got right to his best pitch and it saved us once again," Dygert said.
Vitek also saved Ball State's 8-7 victory Saturday at the University of Toledo, coming on for one strikeout with the winning run at the plate.
Thursday's situation would have been more dire in the bottom of the ninth Thursday if Dygert hadn't blasted a two-run home run that, by some accounts, cleared a light tower in left field. The home run provided Ball State with the insurance runs it needed to win its first MAC Tournament game in two years.
Dygert provided the offense all day for the Cardinals, seemingly willing his college career to continue for at least one more day. The senior captain went 5-for-5 at the plate with three RBIs and four runs.
"He's been special for our program for four years," Beals said. "Our backs are against the wall, we're in a corner, we got to come out swinging and our leader came out swinging first."
After a 6-4 loss to Bowling Green State University to open the conference tournament Wednesday, Ball State faced a win or go home situation. Dygert said he didn't need to tell the Cardinals anything before the game.
"This is an experienced group of guys," he said. "There's no secret of what needs to be done here."
The Cardinals needed runs, and they came in bunches Thursday.
Facing Rex Ingham, who had shut them down in the Bobcats' 4-0 victory March 27, they found ways to put runs on the board quickly. Ball State took a 3-0 lead in the second inning with four hits against the soft-tossing right-hander.
Though Ohio got two runs back in the bottom of the inning against Cal Bowling, Ball State scored the next four runs to build a five-run cushion. T.J. Baumet hit his second home run of the tournament in the fourth inning, and right fielder Jerod Yakubik dropped a fly ball in the fifth, helping the Cardinals to two more runs.
However, Bowling faltered in the fifth and had to be replaced by Derek Grabner (5-3). Ball State has leaned on Grabner throughout conference play and, pitching on fumes, the left-hander kept the Cardinals in the lead by one run.
"We keep going to Grabner and he's starting to run out of gas," Beals said.
Ian Nielsen quickly extended the slim lead with a three-run home run in the sixth inning, and Ball State was cruising again.
Ball State will once again face the pressure of elimination again Friday morning against Bowling Green. The winner will get a date with top-seeded Central Michigan University in the afternoon, while the loser will get on a bus for home.
Before then, Beals just wants the Cardinals to relax.
"Take a deep breath, get some good food in us and rest a little bit" he said. "Make sure our minds are right to get tough and compete again tomorrow morning in an elimination game."