Ball State men’s baseball player Jeff Riedel hits the ball during the game against the University of Dayton on March 18 at the Baseball Diamond at First Merchant’s Ballpark Complex. Briana Hale, DN
Ball State baseball eyes MAC Tournament bye heading into final regular season series
Having won 10 of its last 13 games to break a season-long trend of hovering around .500, Ball State baseball looks to have found its stride as the end of the regular season approaches.
In the midst of that stretch of success, the Cardinals secured a spot in the Mid-American Conference Tournament. However, the team has its sights set on a conference tournament bye, which is awarded to the top two seeds in the MAC.
Currently, Ball State (29-23, 15-9 MAC) is third in the conference due to Miami (Ohio) (31-17, 15-9 MAC) holding the tiebreaker after winning three of the four meetings between the two teams. Western Michigan (22-23, 11-11 MAC) stands in the way of a possible bye for Ball State, while Miami will face current MAC leader Kent State over the weekend.
With a first-game bye on the line, head coach Rich Maloney knows how important this series could be, and he knows he'll see a Western Michigan team that will come to Muncie ready to battle.
"It's crucial," Maloney said. "It's not the end of the world if you don't get it — you still have a chance, but you get a free game, so you'd rather have that and save your pitching. Plus, Western Michigan is trying to get in the tournament, so it's going to be a dogfight."
From falling 8-9 to then No. 8 Indiana in a 14-inning game that lasted five hours and 34 minutes to recording four shutout victories this season, the Cardinals have seen it all, making them a battle-tested unit. Maloney believes the ups and downs the team has dealt with throughout this season will prepare his squad for the series.
"We've been through so much as far as so many grueling games that we don't know any different, so every game is just tough for us — it's a grind," Maloney said. "These guys have resiliency, and they've fought hard all year long.
"We've had every emotion you can have, both good and bad, so I think that really adds value to a team."
After connecting on an RBI single that gave Ball State its fifth walk-off victory of the season Tuesday, sophomore Noah Powell fits the bill as one of the team's resilient players. Powell realizes how important it is for the team's first-game pitcher, sophomore John Baker, to have the chance to face the opposition's second-game pitcher if the team were to earn a bye.
"It'd be awesome for us to get the bye because if we do get the bye, our Friday guy, [Baker], will be going up against a Saturday guy," Powell said. "With that matchup we'd have 100 percent confidence that we'd win the game.
"Just having the confidence in our pitchers and knowing the way they pitch, we believe we can beat any team."
The right-handed Baker will get his 14th start of the season for the 3 p.m. game Thursday. Entering the game with a 4-4 record, Baker carries a 3.59 earned run average (ERA) into Thursday's matchup with the Broncos.
Right-handed pitcher Drey Jameson will get the second start of the series for Ball State's 3 p.m. game Friday. Jameson is right behind Baker with a 3.62 ERA and he boasts a 6-1 record on the year.
Reigning MAC Pitcher of the Week Evan Marquardt will likely pitch in Saturday's matchup unless he is needed sooner.
Saturday's 1 p.m. regular-season finale will also be fan day at First Merchants Ballpark. The first 200 spectators will receive a lunch package, the first 100 spectators will receive a free T-Shirt, there will be prize drawings during each inning and one person could win $5,000 if Ball State hits a grand slam in Saturday afternoon's game.