Baseball looks to win MAC behind bats, improved pitching

<p>The Ball State baseball team took on Eastern Michigan on April 5 at Ball Diamond. Ball State won 20-5.</p>

The Ball State baseball team took on Eastern Michigan on April 5 at Ball Diamond. Ball State won 20-5.

2015 stats (rank in MAC)

Ball State record: 33-25, 14-13 MAC (3rd MAC West)

Team batting average: .282 (2nd)

Team home runs: 39 (1st)

Team ERA: 5.18 (8th)

On the heels of a 33-25 (14-13 Mid-American Conference) 2015 campaign, Ball State baseball has high expectations for the 2016 season.

Junior outfielder Alex Call said the Cardinals are aiming for history.

“We fully expect to make a regional this year and win the MAC conference for sure," he said. "We’re setting our goals high [because] only one team in Ball State history has made the NCAA tournament. So if we can do that – and we expect to do that – then we’ll be one of the best teams in history.”

Call was one of four Cardinals named a top 300 prospect by, along with junior right-handed pitcher Zac Plesac, junior catcher Jarrett Rindfleisch and junior shortstop Alex Maloney.

Head coach Rich Maloney said hitting would be Ball State's strength in 2016. Call finished the 2015 season sixth in the MAC with a .339 batting average, and Rindfleisch was second in the conference with 10 home runs. Rindfleisch also slashed .310/.417/.518, finishing third on the team in batting average and first in on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Maloney said Rindfleisch's bat would be a key for the Cardinals.

"He's got that rare combination, and he's a leader," Maloney said. "He's a special player for us, one of the main leaders on our team, and he's a separator for us."

In order to win the MAC, Maloney said the pitching staff needs to improve on last year's combined 5.18 ERA, the fifth-lowest mark in the conference. He said he saw improvement during the team's Thanksgiving trip to the Dominican Republic.

"I’m encouraged because when we were in the Dominican Republic playing, we had great pitching. If we can pitch like that, then we’re going to be a very difficult foe," Maloney said.

He also said Plesac has to lead the way.

"He needs to have a year like he had his first year," said Maloney. "His first year, he was dominant. Last year, like our team was, we were kind of 50/50. There were days where he was outstanding and there were days where he battled."

As a sophomore in 2015, Plesac led the MAC with 107.1 innings pitched, but his 3.27 ERA was a full run higher than his 2.11 ERA the year before. And although Plesac was fifth in the MAC with 77 strikeouts, Maloney said he needs to strike out batters more frequently than last season, when he averaged a 6.4 K/9 rate.

Maloney said he was going to shake things up early this season by letting Rindfleisch call pitches, but he clarified that "we always have the right as the coach."

Plesac said his familiarity with Rindfleisch gives him high hopes for Maloney's experiment.

"It’s gonna go great," said Plesac. "Me and [Rindfleisch] go all the way back from senior year of summer playing ball together. Then we went into freshman year of college … summer this year in the Cape [Cod summer league], he caught for me."

Ball State's first game is Feb. 19 against Oregon State in Surprise, Arizona. Oregon State is ranked fifth in the country by both and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) preseason poll.

Ball State will also take on the NCBWA's No. 33 team, Ole Miss on March 4, No. 23 Coastal Carolina on March 6, and play a three-game series at No. 7 LSU on March 11-13.

Maloney said he scheduled tough opponents to test his players.

"If you want to be the best, you’ve gotta play against the best," he said. "We’re going to see where we’re at. Win or lose, we’ll learn from it and then hopefully we’ll get better. … hopefully, we’ll be able to fight to get into that NCAA tournament."


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