Cardinals have unfinished business after falling just short of 2019 championship

<p>Junior right fielder Ross Messina slides into home during the third inning of the game against Indiana April 23, 2019, at Victory Field in Indianapolis. Messina was the only Cardinal to have multiple hits in the game. <strong>Rebecca Slezak, DN</strong></p>

Junior right fielder Ross Messina slides into home during the third inning of the game against Indiana April 23, 2019, at Victory Field in Indianapolis. Messina was the only Cardinal to have multiple hits in the game. Rebecca Slezak, DN

“Playing .800 ball in your league — nine out of 10 years, you're winning the championship. 20-5? I mean — amazing. That's all I could say.”

Head coach Rich Maloney didn’t mince words when talking about what could have, should have and would have happened in 2019.

After sweeping their last two series of the regular season, finishing with the second-best record in the Mid-American Conference and fighting through the double-elimination bracket to face top-seeded Central Michigan in the MAC Championship, the Cardinals found themselves with the same title they started the tournament with: second-best.

The chip, most certainly, is there.

“They're hungry. They're very, very hungry, as they should be. Last year is a bit of a sore spot for them,” Maloney said. “Because of them falling a little bit short last season, despite having an excellent year, their slogan [this year] is 'All gas, no brakes,' and that's who they are.”

After the first week of June, it appeared Ball State’s chances of bouncing back in 2020 would be slim, as both Drey Jameson and John Baker — the team’s top two pitchers the last two years — were taken in the MLB draft.

Drey Jameson and John Baker were taken in the 2019 MLB First-Year Player Draft. Jameson was drafted in the first round and currently plays for a Diamondbacks affiliate. Baker went in the 29th round and decided to come back to Ball State for his senior season. 

Jameson went 34th overall to the Arizona Diamondbacks and now plays for one of their minor league affiliates, the Hillsboro Hops. Baker was chosen in the 29th round by the Miami Marlins, but his time as a professional was short-lived as things “just didn’t really work out” after a visit to Miami. He decided it would be best for him to return to Ball State for his senior season.

Maloney was recruiting at a showcase in Ohio when he heard the news, and he said it gave him mixed feelings. Senior catcher Chase Sebby agreed, mentioning he wanted Baker to go pro, but it’s definitely not a bad thing to have him back.

“When you get a chance to bring your sure-fire ace back on the staff, it’s obviously going to help the team a lot and give us a better chance,” Sebby said. “John’s been elite for his whole career here … I think this is going to be a pretty serious year for him, and he’s going to help us a lot.”

Baker made the All-MAC Second Team as a sophomore and the All-MAC First Team as a junior. He also led the conference with a 2.14 ERA last season and ranks second in school history in career strikeouts.

Even with all his accolades, Baker said he still has more to prove.

“I feel like this year I have more of something to prove,” Baker said. “I was a late-round pick, so hopefully I’ll prove some other pro teams wrong. Throughout this year, hopefully I can make them see that they made a wrong decision.”

Maloney said Baker hasn’t eclipsed all expectations because “when we recruited him, we knew he was special.” The first time Maloney saw Baker pitch, he allowed just one run in 10 innings to win the Michigan state final. The first time Maloney ever put Baker in a game, he pitched three scoreless innings against Louisville, the sixth-ranked team in the nation at the time.

“The biggest unfinished business for him is to put a ring on his finger,” Maloney said, “And it certainly won't be because of John Baker that he wouldn't have one. He's a champion, that's for sure. I'm really glad to have him back.”

While head baseball coach Rich Maloney said his starting lineup is always subject to change, this is who he projects will start on opening day of the 2020 season. The Cardinals' first game is Feb. 14 at Georgia Southern.

Even if Baker hadn’t come back for his senior season, junior pitcher Kyle Nicolas said, the pitching staff still would have been in good shape with himself, redshirt sophomore Chayce McDermott and senior Garett Simmons leading the way. Add Baker to the equation, and the Cardinals have a “rock of consistency” to set the tone at the top of the rotation.

“Obviously, he’s had a huge impact in the past, and he’s still that good of a pitcher,” Nicolas said. “I think he just adds consistency to our staff and adds experience, which are two major things with the goals we have. He’s very important for winning the MAC, going to a regional and competing at the highest level.”

Baker’s return, combined with the talent Maloney said he has offensively, has Maloney looking forward to opening day Feb. 14 in Statesboro, Georgia.

“I'm excited for them because they've given us everything they have,” Maloney said. “It's just a great group of guys, and I'm just rooting for them and just trying to help them reach their full potential, whatever that may be. I like their chances.”

Contact Zach Piatt with comments at zapiatt@bsu.edu or on Twitter @zachpiatt13.

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