Grit, bullpen, clutch hits lead Ball State to series win over Houston Baptist

<p>Ball State junior center fielder Aaron Simpson runs to first in the seventh inning of the Cardinals' game against Purdue March 19, 2019 at Ball Diamond at First Merchants Ballpark Complex in Muncie, IN. Ball State's 6 to 0 win over Purdue gives them a 11-9 record. <strong>Paige Grider, DN</strong></p>

Ball State junior center fielder Aaron Simpson runs to first in the seventh inning of the Cardinals' game against Purdue March 19, 2019 at Ball Diamond at First Merchants Ballpark Complex in Muncie, IN. Ball State's 6 to 0 win over Purdue gives them a 11-9 record. Paige Grider, DN

In 14 seasons as Ball State’s head coach, Rich Maloney had never taken the Cardinals (2-4, 0-0 MAC) to Texas. He did this past weekend, and he left Sunday with a winning record in the Lone Star State after taking two of three from Houston Baptist (2-6, 0-0 SLC).

‘We had to be gritty’

The Cardinals may have won the series, but the Huskies sure did make them work for it. In game one Friday, Ball State took a 3-0 lead in the second inning. Houston Baptist tied the game in the fifth, and it remained deadlocked until the 11th where Ball State scored the deciding two runs.

The next day had some déjà vu to it. The only difference was which team had to come back. The Huskies scored three in the second inning, and the Cardinals tied it with three of their own in the fourth. Again, the game remained all knotted up until the 11th where Ball State plated three to take win No. 2 on the weekend.

“We had to be gritty,” Maloney said. “In the first two games, going into extra innings, we stuck it out. We grinded it out until we could find a way to victory, and those are positive traits on a ball club.”

Ball State’s grit almost earned it a series sweep, but a late-inning comeback Sunday fell just short. The team jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first inning, but after the Huskies’ nine-run fourth, the Cardinals had quite the hole to climb out of.

They seemed up to the task, as they started to chip away at the deficit inning by inning until they were only down 10-8 heading into the ninth. The comeback was stalled there, as the Cardinals’ four-inning scoring streak and short two-game winning streak came to a close.

“What I like about our team is we were gritty in all three games,” Maloney said. “Even in the last game, we found ourselves in a bad hole 10-1 and still almost came back and won it. That says a lot about our team.”

‘Outstanding’ bullpen

In the last six innings Friday, Ball State didn’t allow a run. On Saturday, it held Houston Baptist scoreless the last nine innings. Even in the loss Sunday, the Huskies didn’t score the last three frames. Of those 18 innings, the Cardinals’ starting pitchers were only part of four.

“Our relief pitching was really good for most of the weekend,” Maloney said. “[Andre] Orselli, [Zach] Losey, [Tyler] Schweitzer and [Luke] Jaksich did outstanding jobs out of the bullpen this weekend, which was huge.”

After senior John Baker was taken out in the fifth inning Friday, Orselli threw 4.2 innings of two-hit baseball to push the game into extras. Losey and Schweitzer combined for five shutout innings Saturday, and Jaksich pitched a total of 3.2 innings — all scoreless — over two games.

“It gives us confidence going up to the batter’s box knowing when we go back out there, our pitchers are going to go out there, dominate and show who they really can be,” senior center fielder Aaron Simpson said. “We saw a glimpse of that this week, and it’s exciting moving forward that we can be pretty darn good.”

What success Houston Baptist did have offensively in the earlier innings was in large part thanks to Johnny Gonzales. He reached base the first eight times at the plate this weekend, going 9-for-11 in the series with four walks and four RBIs.

“He was phenomenal. We tried everything. We threw everything we could at him, and we couldn’t get him out,” Maloney said. “The way he played, he could have been National Player of the Week … You got to tip your hat to him. He just had a heck of a week, and there’s not much else you can say other than kudos to him. I’m glad we won’t see him again.”

Guess who’s back

Simpson, who tied for the team lead in hits last year as the everyday leadoff batter, struck out all four times he went up to the plate in the first game of 2020 last weekend. Up until his last at-bat Saturday, he was just 3-for-21.

With two runners on in the top of the 11th inning, he crushed a three-run home run down the left field line that proved to be the game winner.

“Off the bat, I knew [it was gone],” Simpson said. “I just wanted to go home, and all the guys wanted to go home.”

That homer, Simpson said, catapulted him into Sunday where he did nothing but hit gaps all day long. He finished the day 4-for-5 with two doubles and two triples.

“That kind of a hit in that kind of a game really pushes you forward,” Simpson said. “You just get more confidence having big-time hits like that. It definitely helped, but I go into every game the same way.”

Senior right fielder Ross Messina, who shared the tie with Simpson for the team lead in hits last year, also broke out of a small, early-season slump. While he did have a base hit in every game last weekend, his batting average sat at .231 through three games. This series, he recorded a pair of multi-hit, multi-RBI games, including the game-winning single in the 11th inning Friday.

“Those guys are huge for our offense without question,” Maloney said. “They’re a big part of the machine. If we’re going to hit, they’ve got to be at the forefront of things … We just got to get a few other guys to get in their right rhythm.”

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

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