The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "dirtbag" as a dirty, unkempt or contemptible person. Ten games into Ball State's (6-4, 0-0 MAC) regular season, that's the term head coach Rich Maloney said his players have used to describe one another and their grittiness.
After taking two of three last weekend against Bradley, the Cardinals did just that again this weekend against Kentucky (7-2, 0-0 SEC) as the team continued its nonconference slate. Maloney said his players' grit has played a vital role in etching out wins against quality opponents.
"Our guys continue to show their grit," Maloney said. "They're a very gritty bunch, and they're very competitive... They've had a chance to play some great teams, and they've been able to come away with some really great victories."
In Friday's opener, a 3-2 Ball State win, junior right-handed pitcher Chayce McDermott got his third nod of the season and delivered. The 6-foot-3 native of Anderson, Indiana, struck out 10 through five innings before freshman left-hander Tyler Schweitzer, senior left-hander Lukas Jaksich and senior right-hander John Baker completed the duties in relief.
Baker once again completed relief duties in Sunday's 4-3 win, which followed a similar narrative to Friday's. Jaksich got the start and sacrificed just one earned run through the first five innings before Baker threw the final four. Maloney deemed Baker the story of the weekend.
"Johnny, in these moments, has nerves that are just like steel," Maloney said. "How he handles the pressure is amazing. He thrives on it. I've coached a lot of great players in my career, and he ranks up there already."
Three of Baker's four appearances this season have came in relief, a pattern Maloney said he's not sure will continue come Mid-American Conference play, when Ball State will play four-game series. Maloney said he is using Baker in high-leverage, late-inning situations against teams such as Arizona and Kentucky to give the Cardinals outs when they matter most.
"Think about what he's done this year," Maloney said. "He's beaten Arizona in relief, and then, he came in these two games. The one time we let him start [against Bradley], he should've had a complete game and darn nearly, a no-hitter. When you play a four-game set, you're probably not going to have that luxury... When you have John available, you just can't not use him."
Ball State found its offense in game one off RBIs from junior outfielder Nick Powell, senior catcher Chase Sebby and senior outfielder Ross Messina. Messina went 2-for-4 in game one and recorded the game-winning double in the top of the eighth, scoring sophomore shortstop Justin Conant. He also hit 2-for-4 in Saturday's game two, despite the 6-0 shutout loss.
The Cardinals trailed 1-0 heading into the sixth inning of Sunday's series finale. With one out, Wildcats' sophomore pitcher Zack Lee hit Messina twice. Messina was then taken out of the game and replaced by pinch-runner and freshman outfielder Zach Cole. Maloney said Messina received stitches shortly after the hits and estimates he could miss a week or two of playing time.
Despite Messina's injuries, though, a little bit of offense was all the Cardinals needed in the sixth inning to clinch the series win. Ball State scored two runs on bases-loaded walks before sophomore infielder Ryan Peltier hit the go-ahead, two-RBI double, bringing home Sebby and junior first/third baseman Trenton Quartermaine.
"When [Peltier] gets that big hit, that's how you win games," Maloney said. "It's a contribution from a lot of different people, and that's what we're gonna have to do all year. These are memories these guys will have the rest of their lives, no matter what happens, but it's exciting."
Ball State will return to action for another three-game weekend series against Old Dominion March 12-14 before its home opener March 19 against Western Michigan. Despite the team's early-season success, Maloney said, the Cardinals are capable of playing better baseball down the stretch. He pointed to two areas in particular, hitting and bunting, where he wants to see improvements.
"The irony is, we haven't played our best baseball yet, but we've played gritty baseball," Maloney said. "I'll take grit any day of the week, but we can get better."