MAC Championship Tournament Preview: Ball State Baseball hopes to finish the job and earn first NCAA Regional bid since 2006

Baseball players huddle after the game against Bowling Green at the First Merchant Baseball Complex on March 19. Cardinals won 17-1. Jamie Howell, DN
Baseball players huddle after the game against Bowling Green at the First Merchant Baseball Complex on March 19. Cardinals won 17-1. Jamie Howell, DN

For Ball State Baseball, the 2022 season has been fueled by disappointment of years past. In 2021, the Cardinals finished 38-18, 29-11 in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) and were one of the first four out of the NCAA Regionals after they finished second in their conference. 

“We want to get in the [NCAA] Tournament in the worst way,” Ball State Baseball head coach Rich Maloney said. “We've worked really hard, the boys have been knocking down the door for many years and they want to be the team to do it. They played well all year long and we've played through injuries that some teams would have folded but this team hasn't.” 

It’s all about getting over the hump for the Cardinals. Maloney said “you could call it a breakthrough” if Ball State is able to cap off a successful season with a MAC Championship Tournament win. 

Maloney was sure to recognize how well the Cardinals have done this season and in the past, however, the NCAA Tournament is where they want to be. Junior left fielder Zach Cole spoke after Ball State defeated Miami (Ohio) 13-2 to win the MAC Regular Season Championship about what a trip to the NCAA Regionals would mean to him. 

“[An] Absolute dream come true,” Cole said. “Just that feeling today of getting the dogpile with my brothers, it was unreal, it's something I'll never forget. To be able to go out there and dogpile on our field next week and go to a Regional, it would just be a dream come true because I've always grew up watching these guys in the NCAA Tournament going to Regionals, Super Regionals, going to Omaha [the site of the College World Series], and just the atmosphere of getting to play in front all those fans, I think it would be something that I would have treasured memories of for the rest of my life.” 

Cole heads into the MAC Championship Tournament having just earned his second MAC Offensive Player of the Week honor for his offensive success during the Cardinals series sweep over the Redhawks. On the season, Cole is hitting .361 with 61 hits, 42 RBI, 12 home runs and nine triples. 

Junior outfeilder Zach Cole smiles while running home after senior teammate Justin Conant hit a home run during the bottom of the seventh inning in the second game of Ball State's doubleheader against Eastern Michigan Mar. 14 at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. Conant's home was the final score of the game for the Cardinals, advancing their lead to 11-7 over Eastern Michigan. Eli Houser, DN

The left fielder said the last two seasons have been mentally taxing for him, as the 2020 season was his freshman year and was cut short due to COVID-19 and the 2021 season was littered with nagging injuries. He attributes his success during his junior season to his relationship with Maloney, his team, his family, his friends, and his girlfriend. 

“People being there for me and pushing me even though I fail and accepting who I am even when I don't have the game that I want to have and letting me know that I don't have to judge myself based off the player that I am but as the man I choose to be,” Cole said. “[It’s] kind of  just like a super freeing sensation that I know that no matter what happens out on the field that I'm not a loser no matter what. I can just play free and play loose and it's really starting to work out for me, I'm glad I can help the team win.” 

Cole said the biggest motivator in his life is his faith. He said he has always had that relationship but has seen it grow and bear fruit through trials and tribulations during his early collegiate career. 

“I always knew the Lord, knew who He was, and I thought I had a strong relationship with Him, but when everything got tough, I would always just try to grind it out and put all the stress and worry on myself when I was trying to find a way to succeed,” Cole said. “I just tried to do everything by myself and I thought that I would be more of a man or maybe be tougher to not just throw my problems or worries on anyone else but just being able to finally come to the realization that I don't have to do everything alone and there's someone out there who loves me no matter what happens and who wants to see me become the best version of me.” 

2021 saw Ball State’s three pitching anchors in Chayce McDermott, John Baker and Lukas Jaksich leave the program, putting a 250 inning hole in the Cardinals rotation going into 2022. Junior left-handed pitcher Tyler Schweitzer has filled in that role for Ball State, posting a 2.61 ERA, a 10-2 win/loss record and 102 strikeouts in 82 ⅔ innings pitched. 

Schweitzer is generating MLB Draft buzz, as the season approaches its end and the Draft draws closer. The left-hander said when he got his first call from an MLB scout, it was hard for him to fathom, as pitching at a major league level has always been a goal of his.

“It's always been a dream of mine to play in the MLB or get drafted and I never really realized it could be a dream come true until just recently, about a month or two ago, when I've been getting more and more looks,” Schweitzer said. 

Junior pitcher Tyler Schweitzer pitches the ball in the first game of Ball State's double header against Eastern Michigan Mar. 13 at First Merchants Ballpark Complex. The Cardinals opened their Mid-American Conference season going winning both games against Eastern Michigan with scores of 2-1 and 6-4. Eli Houser, DN

At the beginning of the season, Maloney said pitching was an area of question for the Cardinals, although he always believed in his staff, they were relatively inexperienced. Maloney now said Schweitzer has embraced the role as Ball State’s ace and his efforts have been essential to the Cardinals success.

“Tyler surpassed all expectations because we knew he was going to be a guy I've always graded as having stuff that played at the next level, but it was just a matter of it coming all together,” Maloney said. “So for the first two years, he was good, but he wasn't great, because he was inconsistent. This year he's been putting it all together, just consistent performance after performance, really pitching well.” 

Schweitzer said no game feels too big for him. No matter what team the Cardinals are facing when he is on the mound, he said he feels butterflies and anticipation, however he is equally confident in himself. 

Schweitzer feels Maloney’s coaching style and constant words of encouragement help him keep his confidence.

“Freshman year he was telling me that he believes in me, and in the stuff that I have, and it's very nice to know that he's always got my back whether it's a bad outing, he knows what I can do and pushes us to do the very best that we can,” Schweitzer said. “That encouragement really helps my confidence as well knowing that coach has my back, so I'm not afraid to make mistakes because he knows what my true potential is.” 

While Maloney believes Schwietzer would have self-confidence whether he is instilling words of encouragement into his thoughts or not, he said walking the line between coach and mentor is essential to Ball State’s success.

“I think the art of coaching and [what it] comes down to [is] you're like a psychologist. You're a teacher. You're a mentor. You're a psychologist. You're a disciplinarian. You're an encourager,” Maloney said. “You got to wear all these different hats and the coaches that get the most out of their players find ways to motivate, find ways to challenge, find ways to encourage. 

That's the challenge that we all face, and as coaches, it's not easy, but there's a time for encouragement, there's a time for discipline, there's a time for a kick in the rear, but most importantly, the kids kind of know that you got their best interest in mind. So you can get on a kid and you get on them hard, as long as he knows that you truly care about him.” 

For fifth-year senior center fielder Amir Wright, the support from Maloney and his teammates have made his move back to his home state of Indiana as smooth as possible after playing at Saint Leo University in Tampa, Florida for his first four years of eligibility. Wright had never played Division I baseball before his 2022 campaign at Ball State, yet he is the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter on a Cardinal team that were MAC Regular Season Champions. 

“When I first got here, I thought it was gonna be a little bit harder than it was but it was honestly one of the easiest processes I probably could have ever imagined,” Wright said. “Everybody was so welcoming and I think that's part of the culture here, it's just, we're a family, and I felt the family ever since I've gotten here and it's been one of the easiest transitions to happen.” 

Fifth year outfielder Amir Wright comes into the dugout after an inning in a game against Ohio May 15. Wright had 3 RBIs for the Cardinals. Jacy Bradley, DN

Wright is hitting for a .349 batting average with a .463 on base percentage, along with a team high 73 hits. The center fielder said he chose Ball State for his final year of eligibility because he wanted to return back to his home state and he knew the Cardinals established a winning culture. 

Wright said he feels a special bond with his teammates even in the short period of time he has spent at Ball State. He said winning the MAC Championship Tournament would be “a dream come true” for himself and the Cardinals. 

“My route personally has been a little bit different where I didn't get to play Division I baseball until my graduate year, but just trying to make the best of the scenario and getting a chance to get to a NCAA tournament, that would be huge,” Wright said. “It also would be huge for us as a team [because] this is the only time this team with these guys will play together, this one year.” 

Winning the MAC Championship Tournament isn’t something Ball State has accomplished since 2006. The Cardinals hadn’t won the MAC Regular Season Championship since 2014 before doing so May 21. 

Cole, Schweitzer, Wright and Maloney each expressed how much a tournament victory would mean to them, both personally and as a team, yet they each recognized it will be far from easy. Given that the tournament is a four-team double elimination affair, with all games played over the course of four days, Maloney said the result will likely be the team that has the perfect combination of playing well and getting hot. 

“It's gonna be a tough challenge for whoever wins the tournament, [they’re] gonna have to earn it,” Maloney said. “I definitely believe in my guys and you just hope the ball bounces your way, you make a play at the right time, you get a timely hit, somebody rises up and gives you a pitching performance that you really need or you get that out when you have to have it. The tournament is always a bit of a wildcard because each team, especially when you're in a four team tournament, is capable of winning the tournament and so the records are all thrown out and it comes down to who plays best for one weekend.”

The Cardinals host the MAC Championship Tournament, earning the right to do so by winning the MAC Regular Season Championship. Ball Diamond at First Merchant’s Ballpark Complex has been well attended during the Cardinals regular season matchups and Cole hopes this tournament is no different. 

Cole said he feels playing at home gives Ball State a slight advantage based on comfort from the turf field and shorter fences, but also said fan support will be vital to the Cardinals success. He made a point to not only invite Ball State fans to May 25-28’s series, but to thank Cardinal fans that have supported them throughout the season.

Ball State’s first game of the MAC Championship Tournament is scheduled for 4 p.m. May 25 at Ball Diamond at First Merchant’s Ballpark Complex in Muncie, Indiana against the Ohio Bobcats. The Cardinals and Bobcats split their regular season series 2-2.

For more information regarding the MAC Tournament, visit: https://getsomemaction.com/tournaments/?id=164&path=baseball

Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at kyle.smedley@bsu.edu or on Twitter @smedley1932.

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