Ball State baseball plays at home against Kent State on March 24 at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. The Cardinals and Golden Flashes face off again Saturday at 1 p.m. before finishing the series Sunday at 1 p.m.
RECAP: Ball State baseball drops MAC opener to Kent State
Standing in the box with a 2-2 count and Ball State baseball trailing Kent State 6-5, senior centerfielder Matt Eppers fought off two more foul balls to stay alive.
The Cardinals trailed 6-3 at the beginning of the inning but scored two runs to pull within one.
Eppers finally got a pitch he liked from Golden Flashes junior right-hander Zach Spangler and pushed it to right field. Junior Colin Brockhouse, on second base as a pinch runner sprinted around the bases as Kent State senior Luke Burch charged in, leaving his feet to go for the diving catch.
Had the ball landed six inches in any other direction it might have dropped, but it fell into Burch's outstretched glove to secure the 6-5 Kent State (13-6, 1-0 MAC) win.
"Props to Matt," senior third baseman Alex Maloney said. "That's a tough pitcher we were facing there, a sidearm righty, and he put up a great fight against the kid, and [Burch] made a great play on it. If he doesn't make that, we might win the game right there — it's just baseball."
Head coach Rich Maloney said he thought the ball was going to drop in front of Burch.
"Fall in, baby," Rich Maloney said. "That's all you hope for. To their credit, they made the play when they had to have it, and quite frankly they made the plays today. We didn't make the plays, and that was the difference in the game."
Ball State (11-11, 0-1 MAC) made four errors in the field and allowed four unearned runs.
Senior right-handed pitcher BJ Butler (2-3, 1.31 ERA) struck out eight without walking anyone and allowed just one earned run in, but three unearned crossed the plate, too. He was credited with the loss, but didn't blame the defense.
"I felt like I had pretty sharp stuff," Butler said. "My breaking stuff was on. A lot of their hits, though, were on pitches up in the zone. I left too many pitches up, I felt, personally."
Butler has posted a quality start (defined by MLB.com as pitching six innings while allowing three or fewer earned runs) in each of his three losses, but feels it's only a matter of time until those performances turn into wins.
"We have guys throughout the year who are making diving plays for me and are running down balls in the gap and making incredible plays on balls that probably should be hits," Butler said. "So over the course of time, it evens out."
Ball State took an early lead in the bottom of the first. Senior third baseman Alex Maloney stepped up to the plate with sophomore left fielder Roman Baisa in left field and senior centerfielder Matt Eppers on second.
Alex Maloney worked a 2-2 count on Kent State junior left-handed pitcher Eli Kraus before doing this:
The 3-run home run gave the Cardinals a 3-0 lead.
"It was nice, definitely, to get on the board first for our fans, but it's a long game," Alex Maloney said.
Kent State responded with a pair of unearned runs in the top of the second. Golden Flashes sophomore shortstop Josh Hollander hit single to left field. He sprinted to second when Baisa’s throw back to the infield sailed wide, then took third when he realized nobody was covering the bag.
Ball State junior second baseman Seth Freed then rifled the ball to third, not realizing there wasn't anybody there. Hollander then scored on a play that was recorded as a single with errors by the left fielder and second baseman.
"On the play where they got the inside-the-parker on errors, Roman did a great job of cutting the ball off and his ball ran," Rich Maloney said. "Freed made a great play stopping the ball. Alex ran from third to second because there was no one covering second. It was just a weird play. ... Freed probably should've held the ball — if he had to do it over again he wouldn't have made that throw. It was a weird play."
Kent State designated hitter Reilly Matthews also scored an unearned run in the top of the third, and catcher Tim DalPorto tied the game with a solo home run off Butler in the fourth inning. The Golden Flashes took the lead in the fourth with another unearned run from second baseman Dom Iero.
In the bottom of the fifth, the Cardinals had a chance to tie the game, but Baisa hit the ball almost too well. With Eppers on first, Baisa the ball to left-center just past diving Golden Flashes left fielder Dylan Rosa. The ball dove.
Had the ball bounced a foot or two lower, it would have hit the wall and Eppers would have had a great chance to score.
Instead, Eppers stopped at third on a ground-rule double, and the Cardinals didn't score that inning.
And on the last pitch of the game, Eppers didn't want to stop again. Burch just didn't give him the choice.
Alex Maloney said it wasn't a surprise that the game came down to the last pitch.
"That's the rivalry," Alex Maloney said. "Neither of these teams are, most likely, going to blow each other out. The margins are too tight and we knew it was going to be a dogfight from inning one."
The Cardinals and Golden Flashes face off again at 1 p.m. Saturday before finishing the series at 1 p.m. Sunday.