After Nestor Bautista's first start of the season, a disastrous outing that saw the left-hander give up seven runs in 1 1/3 innings at USC-Upstate, coach Alex Marconi and pitching coach Jeremy Plexico sat down for a talk with him.
Marconi and Plexico thought Bautista was putting too much pressure on himself. Though Bautista made four starts last season as a freshman, the start at USC-Upstate was his first as a member of Ball State's weekend rotation.
"He needed to know that he didn't have to go out and throw nine scoreless innings," Marconi said. "Which he almost did. But he needed to know that's not what we were expecting out of him."
Bautista visibly relaxed after the meaning. Last Saturday, in his first start since the sit down with Marconi and Plexico, Bautista retired the first 16 batters he faced and threw seven shutout innings in a no-decision at UAB.
Bautista said it was simply a matter of relaxing on the mound.
"I actually went out there with a good mindset, just relaxed and be myself," Bautista said. "I just pitched and tried to keep the team in the game."
Ball State will need to see a lot more of the relaxed version of Bautista this season, starting with this weekend at Missouri. The Cardinals begin their Spring Break trip Friday with a three-game series in Columbia, Mo., and Bautista is scheduled to start Saturday.
Pitching has traditionally been Missouri's strength. In just the past five years, Missouri has produced three pitchers taken in the first round of the MLB Draft, including All-Star right-hander Aaron Crow.
While Eric Anderson, who leads the Tigers' pitching staff this season, is not currently projected as a first-round pick in June, he could climb draft boards as he shows he is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. Anderson has pitched well this season, but took losses at Auburn and San Francisco, where he was outdueled by potential top overall pick Kyle Zimmer.
With runs expected to be at a premium this weekend, Marconi is hopeful the Cardinals have made the offensive adjustments necessary after hitting just .183 at UAB last weekend. As a team, Ball State is hitting .191 and has 12 runs in five games this season. Missouri is hitting only a little better, coming into the weekend with a .209 batting average and 14 runs in six games.
"They're hitting slightly better than we are right now," Marconi said. "It just comes down to execution. Even if it's a good arm on the mound, you take good at bats, you get in good counts and you make it hurt – if you get the 1-0 fastball and you hit it in the gap, which is what you're supposed to do, regardless of who's on the mound – if you do that, then you can push some runs across the board."
But if the problems at the plate continue to linger, the Cardinals will have to lean heavily on its pitching staff again. Playing at Missouri, a Big 12 school, is already a larger stage than Ball State has experienced this season. In addition, Friday night will be the Tigers' home opener, which could bring an even bigger crowd to Taylor Stadium.
Or maybe not. Marconi allowed for the possibility that this weekend will just be a pair of Midwestern baseball teams playing in chilly, early March air.
"Missouri, I'm sure they're going to have a few more fans there than they had at UAB for their home opener," Marconi said. "But it's not going to be great weather. So it may just be a couple of Midwestern teams playing in a 50 degree game with 100 people in the stands."
Ball State at Missouri
Game No. 6
First pitch: 7 p.m. Friday
Pitching matchup: RHP Cal Bowling (0-0, 2.45 ERA) vs. RHP Eric Anderson (0-2, 2.70)
Weather: 45 degrees, mostly sunny, northwest 14 mph
Game No. 7
First pitch: 3 p.m. Saturday
Pitching matchup: LHP Nestor Bautista (0-1, 7.56) vs. LHP Rob Zastryzny (0-1, 6.23)
Weather: 47 degrees, mostly sunny, WNW 20 mph
Game No. 8
First pitch: 2 p.m. Sunday
Pitching matchup: RHP T.J. Weir (0-1, 4.50) vs. RHP Jeff Cline (0-1, 10.50)
Weather: 51 degrees, partly cloudy, WNW 13 mph