Right fielder Matt Eppers runs to third in the fifth inning during the Cardinals’ game against Purdue on March 22 at Ball Diamond. Ball State lost 16-4. Paige Grider // DN
PREVIEW: Ball State baseball opens MAC play against Kent State
Ball State baseball opens Mid-American Conference play this weekend with a three-game series against Kent State.
Last season, the Cardinals won the MAC West Division regular season title, while the Golden Flashes won the East Division.
"For us seniors it's our final go-round," senior outfielder Matt Eppers said. "We know Kent's always one of our toughest opponents so it's going to be a big series opening weekend. But this is what we've been training for all these games we've played against tough teams. Everything up to this point has been for MAC play."
Ball State statistics
Batting average: .239
Kent State statistics
Batting average: .307
Head coach Rich Maloney loaded the Cardinals' non-conference schedule with a four-game series at Oregon State (ranked No. 1 by D1Baseball.com and leads the nation with a 1.06 ERA), a game against Louisville (ranked No. 1 by Baseball America and the National College Baseball Writers Association), a game at defending national champion Coastal Carolina and a game against Maryland (the preseason favorite to win the Big Ten).
Though Ball State only won one of those — the season opener against Maryland — the team still has a winning record (11-10) and was competitive against top-level opposition.
"I actually think we're in a pretty good place, minus this game," Maloney said after Wednesday's 16-4 loss to Purdue. "But the hard thing was that we've had some injuries. We've had four starters who have been out for two weeks. ... It's a different team, and I actually think we've held together pretty well."
Senior first baseman Caleb Stayton was named first-team All-MAC after hitting .377 with 11 home runs and 71 RBI last season, and he hit .278 with a .426 on-base percentage in the Cardinals' first 11 games this season, but he's missed the last 10. Sophomore outfielder/first baseman CJ Alexander, who Maloney was excited about before the season began, has only played in six games because of injury.
Junior Colin Brockhouse (2-1, 1.04 ERA, 20 strikeouts) and redshirt sophomore Evan Marquardt (2-2, 3.38 ERA) are both right-handed pitchers with fastballs that can touch 94 miles per hour who strike out a batter per inning, and they've each had their last starts skipped.
But even with Brockhouse and Marquardt sidelined, the Cardinals' pitching staff has been its strength. Ball State leads the MAC with a 3.26 ERA, and none of Ball State's eight pitchers who have pitched at least 10 innings have an ERA higher than 3.50.
Senior right-handed pitcher BJ Butler (2-2, 1.31 ERA) has been the Cardinals' ace, leading the team with 28 strikeouts in a team-high 34.1 innings.
"With the front-end pitching that we have, and the pitching depth that we have, it's been a positive up to this point in the season," Maloney said. "Hopefully we can hold [Kent State] close, and hopefully we can find a way to get a timely hit."
Kent State, though, is third in the MAC with a 3.98 ERA and its bats could challenge Ball State's pitchers. The Golden Flashes are hitting .307 as a team, and redshirt senior Luke Burch leads them with a .390 batting average, .448 on-base percentage and .649 slugging percentage.
The Cardinals are hitting .239 on the season, but have been patient at the plate — their .329 on-base percentage is a full 90 points higher than their average.
Ball State and Kent State were both picked to repeat last year's division championships in the 2017 MAC Baseball Preseason Poll.
"I think it puts in perspective right away that the MAC could be won or lost in the first series," Eppers said. "I'm not saying that's the way it'll play out, but who knows. With two of the stronger teams playing it's a huge series and it could have a determining factor with how MAC play ends up in the eighth weekend."
The series begins at 3 p.m. Friday at Ball Diamond, followed by 1 p.m. games Saturday and Sunday.