The last time a Ball State team played on the University of Arizona’s campus, it made history.
When Ball State Baseball opens its 2021 campaign Feb. 19 against the Wildcats — right where Ball State Football won its first-ever bowl game not even two months prior — the Cardinals will begin their quest toward a similar outcome: their fifth Mid-American Conference Title.
In 2019, Ball State finished half a game behind Central Michigan for first place in the conference before the Chippewas defeated the Cardinals 6-0 in the MAC Championship. In 2020, Ball State played just 16 games before COVID-19 cut its season short.
“Having that season taken away from us was challenging and surreal,” head coach Rich Maloney said. “It was hard to swallow but understandable. Understandable in the circumstances, frustrating, the wave of emotion that humans feel in different things — we felt a bunch of them.”
Due to the NCAA’s ruling giving spring 2020 Division I athletes an extra year of eligibility, the Cardinals will return five of their nine senior players from last season — right-handed pitcher John Baker, left-handed pitcher Lukas Jaksich, catcher Chase Sebby and outfielders Aaron Simpson and Ross Messina.
Maloney said the Cardinals’ success in 2021 will heavily depend on the performance of their senior players. None of them played summer ball, and this season will mark their first competitive opportunity since last March.
“We roll if they roll,” Maloney said. “They’re veterans who have already had success, and they’ve got to carry the torch and bring those other boys along. That’s the beauty of the program.”
Heading into his fifth and final season as a Cardinal, Baker, who finished 7-2 with a team-leading 2.13 ERA in 2019, said he hopes to lead by example and embrace the opportunity that comes with being a mentor.
“All of us have kind of taken a leadership role just because we had a special opportunity to get an extra year of eligibility,” Baker said. “Maybe other guys [will] step up more this year just because they realize that this will for sure be their last year of college baseball.”
Junior second baseman/shortstop Noah Navarro said he views this season as a breath of fresh air. Navarro batted .308 through 32 games in 2019 before he underwent shoulder surgery and missed the final month of that season. He built on his average in 2020, batting .377 before the pandemic canceled the season.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s been a little frustrating,” Navarro said. “Just having the opportunity to get back on the field and not having those restrictions where we’re cut short again is really special.”
Because of the pandemic’s uncertainties, Navarro emphasized the importance of having a next-man-up mentality this season — something he believes Maloney has preached year after year.
“You have to take every at-bat as it is,” Navarro said. “I feel like when you’re dealing with COVID, the only thing on your mind is being able to be out there and help the team as much as you can.”
Ball State enters 2021 with 17 freshmen. Maloney highlighted three in particular — right-handed pitcher Ty Johnson, third baseman/outfielder Tyler Hinrikus and outfielder/first baseman Decker Scheffler — as potential difference-makers moving forward.
“You never know when we might lose a couple guys to this, that or whatever,” Maloney said. “That’s not counting injury, but the pandemic could happen. You lose a couple guys on the weekend, and somebody has to step up. I’m confident that we’ve got some good depth.”
The Cardinals' matchup against the Wildcats will mark the first of 13 consecutive road games — all against non-conference opponents — before their home opener March 19 against Western Michigan.
From there, the Cardinals will solely face MAC opponents with the exception of a three-game series against Butler April 1-3. Maloney said he plans to use the first few weeks of the season to establish his lineup and rotation come conference play.
Between falling short in 2019 and missing opportunities in 2020, Maloney said his players are hungrier than ever as they board the plane to Arizona and begin their 56-game journey.
“They’re all in,” Maloney said. “[For] the veterans, this is their last hurrah. They want to set it up the right way … This is it, and this is their time.”