For the first three weekends of the season, Ball State struggled to get much of anything going on offense. It was ranked 256th in the nation with 59 hits, an average of 7.375 per game.
That started to change when Ball State visited Tennessee on Wednesday. The Cardinals rapped out 13 hits in a 9-7 loss to the Volunteers. This weekend at Middle Tennessee State, Ball State kept hitting. The Cardinals had 30 hits in the three-game series, twice out-hitting the Blue Raiders.
But Ball State couldn't turn its hot bats into many runs. The Cardinals scored just 10 runs over the weekend, half of which came in Friday's 5-4 victory.
The problem was that Ball State's hits didn't come at the right time. With runners in scoring position Saturday and Sunday, the Cardinals went 2-for-15, producing just three runs.
Ball State lost both games. Saturday, it lost 7-4 despite loading the bases twice with less than two outs in the ninth inning. Sunday, it out-hit Middle Tennessee State 11-6, but was out-scored 6-1.
"It's very frustrating," coach Alex Marconi said. "Going into today, their starter had only given up seven hits in 20 innings. We got seven hits in [six] innings and put ourselves in a position to be in control of the game somewhat."
While the Cardinals did hit Blue Raiders right-hander Jonathan Sisco better than anyone has this season, Sisco scattered the hits well and did not allow any to go for extra bases.
Ball State's only run came in the fourth inning and was unearned. Brandon Estep singled with two outs and Dominick Catanzarite followed with a sharp hit to third baseman Hank LaRue. He fielded the ball and probably should have held it, but threw wildly to first base, allowing Estep to score all the way from first base. The Cardinals did not get a runner to third base the rest of the day.
Ball State didn't have that problem Saturday, when it had a chance to win despite entering the ninth inning trailing by four runs. The Cardinals started the inning with three consecutive singles to load the bases for the heart of their order. But starting with No. 2 hitter Elbert Devarie, no one could provide the clutch hit. Devarie brought home a run with a sacrifice fly and T.J. Weir followed with a walk to reload the bases, but the Blue Raiders were able to escape the jam.
Marconi said Ball State's at bats have greatly improved since Opening Day, but still needs to improve in key situations.
"The tough part is staying under control and learning to hit with runners in scoring position," he said. "We're putting a little too much pressure on us. We need to relax a little bit."
Senior Tim Issler's absence from the lineup hasn't made things easier for the Cardinals. Issler led the Cardinals with a .330 batting average last year, but has missed the last seven games with an eye infection.
The Cardinals also struggled with their bullpen this week. Marconi had to call on Chris Marangon to close out Friday's victory, despite having scheduled him to start the next day. Marangon threw just 19 pitches Friday and had his start pushed back to Sunday. He threw four shutout innings before tiring in the fifth and forcing Marconi into the bullpen early in the game.
Ball State used three pitchers in the fifth inning, including Marangon, and they combined to give up six runs. Marangon said he was good to go Sunday, but tired early.
"In the fifth, I dealt with some fatigue," he said. "I felt fine, I just kind of lost stamina at the end."
Ball State ends Spring Break with a 3-9 record and has one more weekend series before Mid-American Conference play begins. Marconi said he feels much better about his team than he did two weeks ago, after Ball State was swept in a three-game series at UAB.
"I feel we're getting a lot closer to being a good baseball team," Marconi said. "The way our bats have progressed, our defense is playing well and our starting pitching has been solid."