PREVIEW: Ball State baseball takes 'good juju' into mid-week matchup with Valparaiso

Senior outfielder Matt Eppers waits for a pitch during the game against Ohio University on April 2 at the First Merchants Ballpark Complex. Ball State lost 10-0, bringing the Cardinals losing streak to eight games in a row. Emma Rogers // DN
Senior outfielder Matt Eppers waits for a pitch during the game against Ohio University on April 2 at the First Merchants Ballpark Complex. Ball State lost 10-0, bringing the Cardinals losing streak to eight games in a row. Emma Rogers // DN

Ball State statistics

Batting average: .253

ERA: 4.11

Streak: W3

Valparaiso statistics

Batting average: .262

ERA: 4.61

Streak: L1

Don't step on the line. Don't wash your hat. Rub the mascot's head before your at-bat.

Baseball runs on superstitions, so if Ball State (14-18, 3-6 MAC) keeps racking up hits against Valparaiso (12-17, 3-6 Horizon League), ignore the work the team put into driving the ball up the middle during practice.

Instead, look to Chuck Cardinal, a small wooden statue unveiled by head coach Rich Maloney just one day before Ball State turned a nine-game losing streak into a three-game sweep of Western Michigan.

"All the guys opened it, it was a great deal and we said, 'Hey, the great Cardinal in the sky is with us,'" Maloney said. "He sure showed up, so he's got his rightful place in the dugout now."

Chuck Cardinal is the latest edition in a long line of dugout totems in baseball. During last month's World Baseball Classic, for example, Israel had its "Mensch on a Bench," the Dominican Republic had a gold plantain and Team USA got in on the action.

"Man, I was pumped because Team USA had an eagle-looking thing," senior outfielder Matt Eppers said. "It was good juju for them and we need something to flip us around. The Cardinal comes in and we have a good weekend. I love that thing."

With Chuck Cardinal's help, Eppers went 10-13 with six runs, three RBIs, a double and a home run in the series against Western Michigan. The Cardinals scored 46 runs in the three games following Chuck's debut after being limited to 29 runs during their losing streak.

"That's how college baseball is," Maloney said. "Last year LSU had the possum — a possum ran onto their field so they got the fake possum — well, we've got Chuck."

It doesn't matter whether the Cardinal statue is actually bringing supernatural powers into Tuesday's game against Valparaiso or if Ball State's hard work is finally paying off. To paraphrase the classic baseball movie "Bull Durham," if the Cardinals believe they're playing well because they have a statue, or because they don't have a statue, then they are.

Trivia question

Which two Ball State and Valparaiso players were previously teammates at a different university? (answer at the end of the article)

Ball State's bats vs. Valparaiso's arms

The Cardinals' recent hot streak brings their collective batting average up to .253 on the season, fifth in the Mid-American Conference. They're also third with 160 runs and tied for third with 72 extra-base hits (52 doubles, seven triples, 13 home runs).

Senior first baseman Caleb Stayton, who leads Ball State with a .309 batting average, is riding a six-game hitting streak and has reached base safely in 12 consecutive games. He's still looking for his first home run of the season, however, after hitting 11 in 2016.

Senior infielders Alex Maloney and Sean Kennedy have been the Cardinals' primary sources of power this season with five and four home runs, respectively. Alex Maloney is hitting .264 with a team-high 23 RBIs and Kennedy is hitting .306 with 20 RBIs.

Valparaiso freshman right-handed pitcher Jake Larson (0-0, 5.79 ERA) makes his first collegiate start Tuesday. In 9.1 innings spread across four appearances, Larson recorded five walks and four strikeouts while allowing three home runs. As a team, the Crusaders are fourth in the Horizon League with a 4.61 ERA.

Larson's biggest challenge will be keeping Ball State off the base paths — the Cardinals are 8-0 this season when they've recorded at least 10 hits.

Ball State's arms vs. Valparaiso's bats

Freshman right-handed pitcher John Baker (2-1, 2.70 ERA) is expected to start for the Cardinals Tuesday. Opposing hitters have a mere .204 average against Baker, who has 27 strikeouts and 11 walks in 26.2 innings.

Valparaiso has scored 25 runs in their last three games and are third in the Horizon League this season with a .262 batting average, but Ball State is third in the MAC with a 4.11 ERA.

Senior infielder Nate Palace leads the Crusaders with 20 RBIs, 10 doubles, two triples and six home runs.

If Baker can keep Valparaiso from scoring early, Ball State should be in good shape — the Cardinals are 12-5 when they score first and 2-13 when their opponents score first.

Series history

Ball State is 42-28-1 all-time against Valparaiso, with the Cardinals winning by scores of 3-2 in 2016 and 13-4 in 2015.

Dating back to 2002, Ball State is 9-1 against Valparaiso, and the Crusaders haven't won in Muncie since 2001.

Trivia answer 

Ball State redshirt senior left-handed pitcher Kevin Marnon and Valparaiso junior right-handed pitcher Alex Dirienzo were teammates at Akron before the Zips shuttered their baseball program after the 2015 season.

The Cardinals and Crusaders play at 3 p.m. Tuesday at Ball Diamond.


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