Ball State baseball's senior class is ready to wipe the taste of the last few seasons out of its mouth.
Each of the last three seasons, the Cardinals have gotten close to a berth in the NCAA Regionals, but not close enough. In 2014, they won the regular season championship but were knocked out of the tournament. In 2015, they reached the championship game, but fell short. In 2016, they won the Mid-American Conference West Division and earned the No. 2 seed, but were knocked out after two games.
Senior shortstop Alex Maloney said the hardships have brought the team closer together.
“I really think that this team has a chemistry unlike any other that we’ve had here since my freshman year,” Maloney said. “That’s the true test of being a team, I think, and winning a championship.”
ON THE MOUND
Ball State's pitching staff finished second in the MAC with a 4.31 ERA last season, but head coach Rich Maloney said it could do even better this season.
“I think it’s the most pitching depth I’ve had since I’ve been here, so that’s encouraging,” Rich Maloney said. “Because the last two years we haven’t pitched well enough — we had a decent season, we finished second and that’s not horrible — but we didn’t reach our goals because we just didn’t have enough pitching at the end of the day.”
Senior right-hander BJ Butler will be the staff's ace to begin the season after posting a 1.84 ERA (third MAC) and recording nine saves (second MAC). He was named first-team All-MAC as the Cardinals' closer last year, but injuries pushed him into the starting lineup in the conference tournament.
He was credited with the loss against Western Michigan in the first round, but allowed just two earned runs across eight innings — and recorded eight strikeouts. When the season ended, Butler stretched out his arm with a 1.41 ERA across six starts for Kalamazoo of the Northwoods League, a collegiate summer league based in the Midwest.
Butler will get the start Friday against No. 22 Maryland and, at least for the beginning of the season, will be the Cardinals' No. 1 starter.
Redshirt senior Kevin Marnon, a lefty, will be the Cardinals' No. 2 starter to begin the season after finishing last year with a 4.68 ERA in a team-high 73 innings. Marnon transferred to Ball State in 2015 after Akron shut down its baseball program.
But Rich Maloney said junior righty Colin Brockhouse could have a breakout season. His 5.71 ERA last season leaves a little to be desired, but the radar gun lights up when Brockhouse is on the mound.
“Of all the guys, he’s the most talented guy,” Rich Maloney said. “There’s no question on that, I mean he was throwing up to 94-95 mph — that’s major league stuff. Now he’s gotta do it in the game, meaning get guys out. You can throw hard, but now you’ve gotta pitch.”
Brockhouse is currently slated to start Sunday against No. 12 Louisville, but with Butler moving into the rotation there's a void in the bullpen.
"If game one or two dictates us needing his arm to win, we might use him in relief," Rich Maloney said. "So we’ve got that wild card, and then we can start [redshirt sophomore right-hander Evan] Marquardt. Either way we’ve got to gain ‘em all experience, and I think the roles will shake down as the season goes.”
Rich Maloney said he'll "play around" with the bullpen, but Butler isn't too worried about finding someone to fill the closer role.
“Before, we might have had three or four guys who could contribute," Butler said. "But now we have a whole pitching staff."
Senior centerfielder Matt Eppers said the Cardinals, who were at or near the top of the MAC in most offensive categories last season, have gotten a first-hand look at the staff.
“Seeing these guys in the cages, it’s pretty difficult to hit off our own teammates — and we know how they throw,” Eppers said. “We know their tendencies, we know them better than anybody.”
IN THE BATTERS' BOX
Ball State lost a pair of first-team All-MAC players in right fielder Alex Call and catcher Jarret Rindfleisch. Call tied for third in the MAC with 12 home runs and was third with a .358 batting average before being drafted in the third round of the MLB draft by the Chicago White Sox. Rindfleisch went to the Miami Marlins in the ninth after hitting .307 with seven home runs.
But senior first baseman Caleb Stayton, also first-team All-MAC, comes back after leading the MAC with a .377 batting average and 71 RBIs. He was also tied for eighth with 11 home runs.
“He could be that void, power-wise, that we’re kind of missing with [Call and Rindfleisch],” Eppers said. “I’m really excited to see how he does, but I think us as a lineup, and the veteran lineup we have this year, I think all of us will step it up this year and it’ll be a collaborative effort.”
Eppers hit .260 last season, but tied for second in the MAC with five triples behind only Call's six. He said the coaching staff put an emphasis on strength in the offseason to help make up for the loss of Call and Rindfleisch — and maybe turn a triple or two into home runs.
“We’ve really been getting after it in the weight room," Eppers said. “I think this year, just looking at us, you can tell we’re a little bit more physical."
Alex Maloney, for example, said he put on 25 pounds of muscle in the offseason, though he's listed at 200 pounds after being listed at 190 last season. Still, he hit .305 with 14 doubles and two home runs, so any muscle he's gained could help boost his .408 slugging percentage.
Stayton, Eppers, Alex Maloney and the rest of the seniors are mostly known quantities, though. Rich Maloney said the Cardinals need some of its younger players, like sophomore outfielders CJ Alexander and Roman Baisa, to step up if they want to win the conference championship.
“That’s what you need,” Rich Maloney said. “You need guys to come out that maybe somebody doesn’t know about that ends up being a really good player.”
Alexander was 9-61 at the plate in 25 games last season, but Eppers, Butler and both Maloneys mentioned him when asked about the lineup, citing his raw ability and a strong offseason.
“CJ Alexander is a very talented young man,” Rich Maloney said. “He’s got an outstanding arm, he runs fast, he’s physical, has power. Just a guy, because he was injured last year, he just never got the chance to really make a big contribution.”
Baisa made a more immediate impact by hitting .291 with a .419 on-base percentage and 11 steals as freshman. He played in 43 games, starting 30, but injuries also limited his playing time.
"He’s got all the tools to be a great leadoff hitter," Alex Maloney said.
Community college transfer Jeff Riedel could also challenge for some playing time in the outfield, Rich Maloney said. The redshirt junior was a 2016 NJCAA All-American at Jackson College (Michigan), where he hit .489, with a .571 on-base percentage and an .889 slugging percentage. He also stole 48 bases.
(Yes, you read those numbers right — .489/.571/.889, with 48 steals)
Regardless of who starts though, they'll face some difficult arms to start the season.
Ball State plays six games against teams in D1Baseball.com's top 25 in its first 13 games, including three of its first four.
The Cardinals face defending national champion No. 11 Coastal Carolina in Conway, South Carolina, on Feb. 24 and have a three-game series at No. 8 Oregon State. They'll also face off against Indiana twice, including an April 25 matchup at Victory Field in Indianapolis.
But Eppers said the team's experience, which includes a win at then-No.5 Louisiana State last season, will keep them in the games.
“When I was a freshman, you’d see those names and it would be a lot different,” Eppers said. “You’d think, ‘Man, those guys are really good.’ And they are, they are really good, but going across our summer leagues and playing against them here, we realize they’re ballplayers just like us.”
Rich Maloney likes to schedule difficult opponents for two reasons — it tests the team and helps attract future Cardinals.
“When we recruit kids, we recruit them with the idea that they’re going to play in great venues against great teams,” Rich Maloney said.
There also isn't much pressure on Ball State to win, Alex Maloney said. The games don't affect the conference standings, and most people think they're supposed to lose anyway.
“If we win, we win,” Alex Maloney said. “If we lose, we learn from it, gather ourselves and become a better team.”
If everyone plays up to their potential, from Butler on through to Alexander and Baisa, the Cardinals could pull off a few upsets, like they did last year. And if that happens, Eppers said it could be a special year for the Cardinals.
“So I think we’ve kind of been all over the board, but it’s time," Eppers said. "I think we all kind of feel it, and it’s time to get over that hump and get to the NCAA Tournament.”
Ball State opens its season Friday in Clearwater, Florida, against No. 22 Maryland. First pitch is scheduled for 7 p.m.