Senior right-handed pitcher BJ Butler spent most of last season finishing games as Ball State baseball’s closer.

This year, he’s throwing the first pitch.

“I’ve played with BJ since we were 14, 15 years old,” senior shortstop Alex Maloney said. “It’s funny because he came in his freshman year and he wanted to be the ace. He’s finally got his chance to be the ace … I believe he’s going to be the MAC Pitcher of the Year. I really do, I think he’s the best pitcher in the conference.”

BJ Butler 2016 stats

6-1 record

1.84 ERA (third MAC)

63.2 innings pitched

54 strikeouts

Butler was named third-team Preseason All-American by Collegiate Baseball this season, and was first-team All-Mid-American Conference as a relief pitcher last year.

But injuries pushed Butler into the starting rotation at the end of the season. He was credited with his only loss of the season after allowing three runs (two earned) in eight innings against Western Michigan in the conference tournament.

Butler said his experience closing tight games will translate into his new role as the Cardinals’ No. 1 starter.

“You’re not really pitching unless it’s a close game so that prepares you just for pressure situations,” Butler said. “And the thing with baseball is key points in the game — you don’t know when they’re coming in the first or second inning as a starter or in late innings.”

At the beginning of last season, though, he was just another arm in the bullpen until he recorded a 2.1 inning save against Utah Valley on Feb. 21, 2016.

“The next weekend I got a couple more saves and then from there it just led to where I was solidified as the closer,” Butler said.

Even though he was usually on the mound for an inning or two each game, Butler still finished second on the team with 63.2 innings on the mound and led the Cardinals with 54 strikeouts. He was third in the MAC with a 1.84 ERA and second with nine saves.

Rare for a closer, Butler also tied for the team led with six wins.

“Initially, I didn’t think I was going to like closing and I loved it,” Butler said. “Now I’m back to starting and I like that too. As long as I’m on the mound and getting people out, I’m pretty happy.”

Though Ball State’s bats finished last season at or near the top of the MAC in most categories, including batting average (second), home runs (second) and runs scored (first), Butler said senior third baseman Sean Kennedy, who hit .266 primarily from the sixth, seventh and eighth spots in the lineup last season, is his toughest out in practice.

“He fouls off a couple of pitches, it ends up being 10 [or] 11 pitches and he gets a single or gets a walk,” Butler said. “There’s been a few times I’ve been able to get him, get him to groundout or get a strikeout. But Sean’s a really, really tough hitter for me to get out.”

But when Ball State takes on No. 22 Maryland in its season opener at 7 p.m. Friday in Clearwater, Florida, Kennedy will be in the field behind Butler.

Head coach Rich Maloney said he’s not sure who’s going to step up in the bullpen, but Butler will get the start.

“He’s ready."