PREVIEW: Ball State baseball opens MAC Tournament against Ohio
Ball State baseball gets another crack at Ohio in the first game of the Mid-American Conference Tournament Wednesday.
The Cardinals (30-26, 14-10 MAC) were picked to repeat as MAC West Division champions in the preseason coaches' poll, but their goal quickly shifted to just making the tournament after a slow start in conference play. In the midst of a nine-game losing streak, Ball State opened conference play 0-6 after being swept by Kent State (35-16, 18-6 MAC) and Ohio (27-26, 13-11 MAC).
"It feels great to first of all make the tournament, especially with how we started 0-6," senior second baseman Sean Kennedy said. "But I think we have a great feeling going into this tournament and I don't think there's been a better MAC team for the last few games than us."
Three Ball State players named All-MAC
Senior second baseman Sean Kennedy, first team
Kennedy led the MAC with a .404 batting average in conference games, 10 doubles and 70 total bases. On April 15, he broke Ball State's single-game record with 17 total bases, hitting three home runs, a double and a triple. He was named first-team All-MAC as a second baseman, though he bounced around the infield for Ball State with 26 starts at second, 12 at shortstop, nine at third and eight at first.
Senior center fielder Matt Eppers, second team, all-defensive team
The Cardinals' resident prankster tied for second in the MAC with 26 runs scored in 24 games and finished third with a .387 batting average. He started all 56 games in the outfield (52 in center and four in right) without making an error in 161 chances.
Senior first baseman Caleb Stayton, second team
Stayton missed Ball State's MAC-opening series against Kent State with a concussion, but in 21 MAC games, he hit .351 with a .505 on-base percentage, drawing 23 walks against just six strikeouts. Primarily a first baseman, though he started three non-conference games at catcher, Stayton was selected as the second-team at-large pick.
Since then, the Cardinals went 14-4 in conference play to go from last to the No. 4 seed entering the conference tournament, one spot ahead of the Bobcats.
"We've faced a lot of adversity this year, probably more than I've ever had since I've been here in college," junior right-handed pitcher Colin Brockhouse said. "We've grown in areas where we didn't think we would grow this year because we didn't think we'd have to face it."
Ball State's arms vs. Ohio's bats
Ball State's pitching staff was supposed to be the backbone of the team this season, and although its 4.37 ERA is the second-best mark in the MAC, that mark is buoyed by its 3.66 ERA in non-conference games. Ball State's 5.34 ERA in MAC games was the second-worst in the conference.
The difference, though, shouldn't be chalked up to weak competition – 10 of the Cardinals' non-conference games were against teams ranked in the RPI Top 50, including a four-game series at No. 1 Oregon State (45-4).
Instead, injuries forced the Cardinals to start seven different pitchers in 24 conference games, five of whom started multiple times. In the context of collegiate baseball, where teams run 3-man rotations for conference series on the weekends while mixing in younger pitchers in mid-week games, that's a lot.
No other MAC team used as many different starters in conference games or used more than four pitchers in multiple starts. In fact, West Division champion and No. 2 seed Central Michigan (29-26, 16-8 MAC) used just three starters in MAC play, while East Division winner and No. 1 seed Kent State's (35-16, 18-6 MAC) 3-man rotation started 23 of its 24 games.
But in the double-elimination tournament, top-end talent can help cover depth issues on the mound. Last season, for example, No. 7 seed Western Michigan brought in the worst ERA in the conference (6.47 in MAC play) but won the tournament behind the arm of Keegan Akin, who shut down No. 2 Ball State in the first game of the tournament (7.2 innings, 1 unearned run, 7 strikeouts) and No. 1 Kent State in the MAC Championship (6 innings, 0 runs, 9 strikeouts) before being selected in the second round of the 2016 MLB Draft by the Baltimore Orioles.
Brockhouse (3-2, 4.11 ERA), will try to have that effect against Ohio, who hit .296 as a team in MAC games.
"I'm pitching game one, that's my goal," Brockhouse said. "My goal's to go nine and keep everyone fresh, give my team a chance to win. Pitching and defense is really big in tournament games."
In the preseason, Maloney said Brockhouse is "the most talented guy" in the Cardinals rotation with "major league stuff." It's worth noting, however, that he's yet to throw more than 5 innings or 82 pitches since returning from an injury that sidelined him for most of March and April – including the series against Ohio.
Still, Brockhouse said if he can go deep into game one, he can help keep the bullpen fresh later in the tournament.
"If our starters do the job and put up quality starts and quality numbers, our bullpen is good enough to shut down any team in this tournament," Brockhouse said.
Ball State's bats vs. Ohio's arms
The Cardinals' offense was one of the best during MAC play, tying for the league lead with a .313 average while leading the conference with a .400 on-base percentage, a .470 slugging percentage and 183 runs scored.
Junior left-handed pitcher Gerry Salisbury (4-3, 4.26 ERA) is expected to start for Ohio. On April 1, he was credited with a no-decision in the Bobcats' 6-4 win over the Cardinals, striking out four while walking three, and allowing four hits in five-plus innings. He allowed three runs (two earned), but two scored after he was pulled in the sixth.
Kennedy led the conference with a .404 batting average, 10 doubles and 70 total bases in MAC play, but it was far from a one-man show. Junior right fielder Jeff Riedel (.380), senior center fielder Matt Eppers (.387) and senior first baseman Caleb Stayton (.351) also hit better than .350, and eight different Cardinals scored at least 15 runs while six knocked in at least 15 RBIs.
Kennedy said the lineup's versatility, as well as the pitching staff's talent when healthy, makes them a tough team in the tournament.
"When you're doing just one thing, you really kind of limit yourself," Kennedy said. "Say you're really good at hitting – you have to rely on hitting and if you're hitting's down for a game you're really in trouble. ... In that aspect, being consistent really plays into our hands well."
Ball State takes on Ohio 8 p.m. Wednesday at Sprenger Stadium in Avon, Ohio. If the Cardinals win, they'll play the winner of Kent State and Toledo 8 p.m. Thursday, but if they lose they'll match up with the loser of Kent State and Toledo 1 p.m. Thursday. The games will be broadcasted online on ESPN3.