With most of last year's Mid-American Conference's top pitching staff back at Ball State University this spring, coach Greg Beals has a unique plan to get the most from his pitchers.
Instead of having a starting pitcher throw six or seven innings and using a few relievers to finish the game, Beals will enter each game with a set of pitchers who will carry the team at least to the closer.
"We're going to pitch outside the box this year," Beals said. "We're going to piggyback each other. We're going to put two or three guys together and say ‘You three guys get us through eight innings today or you two guys will get us through seven innings today.' We're going to utilize our depth and not let a guy get in trouble in the middle innings of a ball game."
The approach is similar to what Beals and other college coaches use in midweek games when their best starting pitchers are resting. The difference with Ball State's new approach is the length of the pitchers' outings. In a typical midweek game, Beals often uses pitchers for only one inning at a time.
"A little bit of [a midweek style], where we lean on our whole team, but not quite so short," he said. "I could see possibly, three guys going three, three and three [innings] at a time."
The depth of the Cardinals' pitching staff has allowed Beals to take this approach. Eight pitchers return from last year's MAC West champions, including two members of the weekend rotation and three key pitchers out of the bullpen.
Starting pitcher Brad Piatt said best assembly of pitching talent is his time at Ball State.
"In the four years I've been here, we've never been this deep as a pitching staff," Piatt said. "That'll help us throughout our 50-game season."
The key losses from last year's pitching staff were starter Brenden Stines and left-handed setup man Tom Mueller. Stines was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 33rd round. But the development of young pitchers, like Cal Bowling and Perci Garner, is expected to offset the losses.
Bowling will likely slide into the weekend rotation between Piatt and preseason All-American Kolbrin Vitek. Bowling started six games last year as a freshman, and worked 40 2/3 innings.
Beals plans to use center fielder Cody Elliott as a pitcher as well. The sophomore played exclusively in the outfield last year, and will be taking over the starting role in center as well. Beals plans to use him on Sundays to keep his arm fresh. Beals uses the same philosophy with Vitek, who in addition to being the Cardinals' ace also plays second base.
"We might be pretty tough on the mound on Sundays," Beals said.
The other big change for Ball State's pitching staff will come in the closer role. Senior Morgan Coombs held the job last year, going 3-5 with six saves. But because of his ability to throw more than one inning at a time, he will be incorporated into Beals' piggy-back plan and senior Aaron Hammons will takeover as closer.
"Morgan proved the ability to pitch multiple innings," Beals said. "He's pitching very well now, so he's going to figure in earlier in the game then as our closer."
No matter how Beals plans to use the pitchers, Piatt is ready for Ball State's first game Feb. 19 at the University of Arkansas.
"I'm extremely excited," he said. "We're definitely looking forward to it."