The final weekend tune-up for Ball State before Mid-American Conference play begins March 23 may provide the Cardinals their biggest test of the season.
Ball State (3-9) will head just a few hours south for a three-game series at Louisville and a battle of the Cardinals. The Louisville Cardinals were picked to finish second in the Big East preseason coaches' poll and were ranked No. 24th for the first month of the season before falling out of the Baseball America poll this week.
Though Louisville (11-6) has lost three of its last four games, it remains a dangerous team. Friday night starter Justin Amlung was All-Big East last spring and a Cape Cod League All-Star last summer. In between, he was picked by the Cincinnati Reds as a draft-eligible sophomore in the 39th round, but opted not to sign.
Amlung and Ball State right-hander Cal Bowling combine to give the series' opening game an excellent pitching matchup. Bowling was won both of his last two starts, allowing a combined five runs in 16 1/3 innings at Missouri and Middle Tennessee State.
After Ball State's 5-4 victory last Friday, Middle Tennessee State coach Steve Peterson was impressed by Bowling.
"I told the team [Bowling] was a very efficient pitcher," Peterson said. "He really lived up to his billing."
Marconi is sticking with the rotation he used last week at Middle Tennessee State, a shakeup that moved right-hander T.J. Weir to Saturday and removed Nestor Bautista from the rotation. Officially, Sunday's starter is listed as TBA by Ball State, but Marconi said he hopes to use right-hander Chris Marangon again on Sunday. But because Marangon may be called on out of the bullpen earlier in the weekend, his availability is unknown.
"The tough thing is he's one of our best arms right now," Marconi said. "I like his competiveness and what he brings to the table. When we're in the position to win Friday and Saturday it's important he's in the game to hold that win for us.
"When we have the opportunity to win, we have to win. We'll figure out the Sunday starter after that."
While Louisville's strength may be pitching, it is also much improved at the plate. A year ago, when the Cardinals missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006, it was due in part to their weak offense. Louisville hit just .253 as a team in 2011, which ranked 269th in the country. This year, the Cardinals are hitting a robust .311 led by second baseman Nick Ratajczak's .394 batting average.
In addition to Ratajczak, senior right fielder Stewart Ijames has five home runs and is close to joining the top 10 home run hitters in the programs history. Ijames enters the weekend with 38 career home runs, two shy of 10th place.
Ball State coach Alex Marconi knows his team will be challenged this weekend.
"We have our work cut out for us against at top-25 team in Louisville," he said.
Ball State at Louisville
Jim Patterson Stadium
Game No. 13
First pitch: Friday 6 p.m.
Pitching matchup: RHP Cal Bowling (2-0, 2.61 ERA) vs. RHP Justin Amlung (2-2, 3.58)
Weather: 76 degrees, isolated thunderstorms, SSW 7 mph
Game No. 14
First pitch: Saturday 1 p.m.
Pitching matchup: RHP T.J. Weir (0-3, 7.02) vs. RHP Jeff Thompson (3-0, 4.09)
Weather: 75 degrees, scattered thunderstorms, south, 8 mph
Game No. 15
First pitch: Sunday 1 p.m.
Pitching matchup: TBA vs. RHP Travis Tingle (2-1, 6.27)
Weather: 80 degrees, partly cloudy, SSW 8 mph