PREVIEW: Ball State baseball plays at Buffalo for last time
Ball State baseball makes its longest journey of the Mid-American Conference season this weekend — a 475-mile trip to Buffalo, New York.
But this is the last time the Cardinals (19-18, 6-6 MAC) will make the trip in the foreseeable future — the Bulls (11-22, 3-6 MAC) are cutting their baseball program at the end of the season.
"They have nothing to lose and everything to gain, so they're a dangerous team [and] you've got to come ready to play," head coach Rich Maloney said. "But it's not good whenever you see programs eliminated. Hopefully that'll be the end of it in the MAC."
Ball State statistics
Batting average: .270
Runs per game: 5.92
Batting average: .265
Runs per game: 5.55
Redshirt senior left-handed pitcher Kevin Marnon will start the first game of the series Friday with senior righty BJ Butler unavailable — fitting, given that Marnon came to Ball State after Akron shut down its baseball program in 2015.
NCAA rules allow student-athletes who transfer from programs that are shutting down to be eligible without sitting out a year, which Marnon said could motivate Buffalo's players.
"I feel for them," Marnon said. "I know probably what's going through their head and a lot of what-ifs and a lot of questions running through their head. But, fortunately for them, this season's sort of like a tryout for them. They get to showcase themselves in front of the other teams they're playing, because I'm sure they're going to be looking for players. I didn't have that opportunity because [Akron's baseball program] was cut in the summertime."
Senior third baseman Alex Maloney said he's kept up to date on Buffalo's situation through his summer ball connections. In Summer 2014, he played with Bulls senior outfielder Vinny Mallaro for the Kalamazoo Growlers of the Northwoods League and the two still keep in touch.
"I talk to him, and they're taking the approach that they're going out with a bang," Alex Maloney said. "Testament to them, they've got a solid team over there. And playing out at their place, it's definitely not going to be easy."
One of the toughest parts of playing in Buffalo, said senior middle infielder Sean Kennedy, is the weather. This weekend, temperatures are projected to stay below 60 degrees with a high of just 49 degrees on Friday.
The extra motivation of not an uncertain future, though, could be a bigger challenge than the weather.
"I know [Buffalo head coach Ron Torgalski is] going to have his guys ready to play, and like coach [Maloney] said, they're going to throw everything they've got," Kennedy said. "They've got nothing to lose — this is the last year of their program."
The series begins 3 p.m. Friday, followed by a pair of 1 p.m. games Saturday and Sunday.
Wednesday, Ball State announced the addition of pitcher Luke Jaksich for the 2017-18 academic year. Like Marnon and any Buffalo players who decide to transfer, Jaksich will be eligible to play immediately because his current school is closing at the end of the year. What Indiana school is Jaksich currently playing for?
Ball State's bats vs. Buffalo's arms
The Cardinals recorded at least 10 hits in each of their eight consecutive wins, and are 12-0 this season when they reach that benchmark.
Kennedy, the MAC West Division Player of the Week, bats fourth for Ball State and has hit .543 with six home runs and 23 RBIs in that stretch. Tuesday, he hit a go-ahead 2-run home run in the top of the 12th in the Cardinals' 5-3 in at Purdue.
"It's one of those moments you play over and over in your head when you're a little kid — hitting the go-ahead home run to put your team on top," Kennedy said. "Especially against an in-state rival like Purdue, who kind of embarrassed us on our home field earlier in the year. We didn't take too kindly to that."
Alex Maloney, who's scored 15 runs during the winning streak while going 12-31 with nine walks, said being in front of Kennedy in the lineup helps him see better pitches.
"I still think a little bit of it is still being pitched around, but they can't really pitch around as much now because they've got to face Sean, who's red-hot," Alex Maloney said.
Alex Maloney usually hits second, a spot that generally doesn't generate many RBIs, but he's knocked in 12 in the last eight games with the bottom of the lineup getting on base. Batting ninth, junior right fielder Jeff Riedel is 11-23 with 11 runs during the streak, raising his average from .143 to .220 on the season.
"Jeff Riedel is lost in all this because his average is not so good, but the truth of the matter is over the last couple weeks his average has gotten better," Rich Maloney said. "... That's one of the things that's helped out turnaround — guys' ability to get on base."
Buffalo brings a 7.33 ERA into the series, though in nine MAC games it has a slightly better 6.87 ERA.
Ball State's arms vs. Buffalo's bats
The Cardinals lead the MAC with a 4.04 ERA on the season, but in conference play they've posted a 5.42 ERA.
"I think when you're overall number one like that in pitching stats, it talks to the depth of your staff," Rich Maloney said.
Ball State's starting pitchers have missed time with injuries, including junior righty Colin Brockhouse, who returned to the Cardinals after being drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 37th round of the MLB Draft last June. Limited to just 17.1 innings in three appearances, he's flashed his ability with a 1.04 ERA and 20 strikeouts against 10 hits and three walks.
"Brockhouse is going to pitch an inning or something on the weekend, so that's encouraging," Rich Maloney said. "He's been looking really good and we're slowly extending his workload. Hopefully by the tournament he'll be ready to start for us."
As a team, Buffalo is hitting .265 on the season and .282 in MAC play. Senior infielder Chris Kwitzer leads the Bulls with a .341 average and a .565 slugging percentage, followed closely by senior infielder Brian Dudek (.336 average, .542 slugging percentage). Mallaro leads the team with 34 RBIs and is hitting .323.
Marnon (4-4, 4.44 ERA) starts Friday, and freshman right-handed pitcher John Baker (4-1, 2.75 ERA) starts Saturday. As of practice Wednesday, Rich Maloney said he was unsure who would start Sunday.
Since Ball State and Buffalo first played in 2008, the Cardinals are 14-4 and have never lost a series to the Bulls.
Jaksich currently pitches for Division-II Saint Joseph's College in Rensselaer. He's currently 2-2 with a 4.94 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 31 innings.