It’s going to come down to who’s on the pitcher’s mound this weekend as Ball State baseball travels to Kent State for a three-game series to open up Mid-American Conference play.
Ball State (10-10) will go head-to-head with Kent State (10-6) in a rivalry series that has been around for a long time. While there will be no room for mistakes in this series, head coach Rich Maloney knows what his team needs to do.
“We’re going to need some superlative outings from our pitchers without question,” Maloney said. “We know that and that should be our strength this year. It was encouraged by this past weekend when we struck out more than 10 and walked two. That’s a big positive. Now can we carry that into MAC play? That’s the big question.”
Ball State right-hander John Baker recorded 14 strikeouts and just one walk in 8.0 innings of work in Friday’s game against Dayton. Maloney would like to see his entire eight-man rotation take charge on the mound and lead the team to a victorious series.
“That’s where pitching comes in,” Maloney said. “If you’re pitching is strong and you’re getting quality starts, I think we go about eight deep on the mound. If those eight guys can perform consistently, they’re going to give us the chance to win a lot of games.”
On the other side, the Golden Flashes have a pitching staff that is going to test the Cardinals in all ways possible.
Kent State’s two-headed monster made up of senior left-hander Eli Kraus and junior right-hander Joey Murray are going to push Ball State’s offense. Kraus, a crafty lefty, holds a 2-2 record on the season. When put in rotation with Murray, who holds a 1-1 record and a 1.98 ERA, the duo is one to not take lightly.
“I think we’re more prepared this year because we’ve seen film of their pitchers,” Ball State catcher Griffin Hulecki said. [Murray and Krous] have a good mix of everything and coach is really honing down on hunting the fastball. So we’re definitely swinging at fastballs this weekend, which we didn’t do last year. I think we watched too many pitches. We’re going in with a game plan this year.”
Hulecki has been hot at the plate as of late and is ready to take on the defending MAC Champion in this weekend’s series. After last weekend’s series against Dayton, Hulecki sits in second on the team with a .359 batting average and has 23 hits and 11 RBIs on the season.
“Coach just kind of has me on a nice and easy plan, not doing too much,” Hulecki said. “I don’t have to hit a homerun every single time. I’m trying to barrel the ball up and stay right-center. Me staying right-center has definitely opened up the whole field because some teams like to shift against me, so it just opens up a huge hole. I think that’s where my success has been coming from.”
For the third week in a row, redshirt junior Jeff Riedel leads the Cardinal offense, boasting a .409 average with 27 hits and 14 RBIs on the season. Riedel recorded seven hits and an RBI in the Dayton series.
Although there are some standouts within the Ball State offense, Maloney said he needs the rest of his squad to come up with the timely hits that the team needs to back up the pitching staff.
“Now, can we score just enough runs to pull it off? Although we’re not a hitting juggernaut this season, we are are capable of hitting well,” Maloney said. “We’re going to have to scratch and claw and do the little things really well and try to not strikeout too much. We need to try to limit our strikeouts to about seven a game. Along with playing excellent defense, I think all of this is doable. Now whether we can do them on a consistent basis, that remains to be seen.”
Looking at the big picture of entering MAC play, Maloney and the team have the same goal in mind that they have every year — to win the MAC Tournament. Last year, the team went 0-2 in the tournament when a pair of losses to Ohio and Toledo didn’t get it past the first round.
This year, the team is taking a different approach when it comes to waiting out the MAC Tournament.
“I think this year, we’re kind of using the season as like preparation for the MAC Tournament because every single year, we push the gas pedal for that regular season MAC Championship,” Hulecki said. “But this year, we’re kind of taking a different route. Obviously it would be awesome to win the regular season flat out, but just in preparation for the MAC Tournament this time. We always get in it, but are always the first out.”
Prior to the start of the season, Ball State was ranked third in the MAC preseason poll after receiving 73 votes, behind Kent State (98) and Central Michigan (86).
Heading into the weekend, the MAC standings put Ohio on top with a 11-6 record, Kent State close behind at 10-6 and Ohio in third at 11-8. Central Michigan sits low in the rankings at 4-15-1 on the season.
“Our goal is always to win the MAC Tournament,” Maloney said. “If we continue to throw strikes and get the timely hit, we are going to have a good chance when it matters down the road.”
First pitch of Ball State and Kent State’s three-game series is slated for Friday at 4 p.m. at Schoonover Stadium.