“It doesn’t get much better than this,” Ball State Baseball (29-14, 23-4 MAC) head coach Rich Maloney said.
It was a weekend to remember for Ball State and its fans as the Cardinals swept the Central Michigan Chippewas (28-14, 21-5 MAC), who was the No. 1 team in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) heading into April 29-May 1’s four-game series. Now, Ball State is first in the MAC Baseball standings with three series left to play before the conference tournament.
“When you play a quality team like Central where we’ve been neck and neck the last two years, [you] play such intense games, all of them with so much emotion by both teams and then to be able to come out on top against an outstanding team program like that, what can you say,” Maloney said.
It was a weekend full of close games, with two of the four games ending in walk-off fashion and all of which went Ball State’s way. In game one, junior left-handed pitcher Tyler Schweitzer continued his successful season, picking up his seventh win after pitching seven innings, only allowing one hit, one run, five walks and striking out six Chippewas.
The Cardinals took game one 7-1, however, the scoring didn’t begin until the bottom of the seventh inning when Ball State scored three runs on a three-run home run from sophomore left fielder Zach Cole. The Cardinals followed that up with a four-run eighth inning that included a three-run inside the park home run from fifth-year right fielder Nick Powell.
“It takes a lot of faith in your preparation,” Cole said. “Faith in my Lord Jesus Christ and belief for my teammates and the support from loved ones out there. They all factor into my success and just wanting to see the smiles on my teammate's faces when I get back in the dugout and after winning these games it's the most rewarding thing you can have.”
On April 30, the Cardinals and Chippewas squared off in a doubleheader, where Ball State took game one 6-4 in dramatic fashion. Cole went 2-3 with one RBI and freshman designated hitter Hunter Dobbins contributed hitting 2-4 with two RBI, however, it was junior second baseman Zach Lane who won the game for the Cardinals, hitting a walk-off two-run home run.
Lane said he remembers being uncharacteristically tight in the batter's box and missing the first pitch, then he went to talk to Maloney who told him that he believes in him, to wiggle his bat and to loosen up.
“So, I’m wiggling my bat and I hit a line drive and I'm like, ‘maybe that could get over the left fielder’s head’ and I see it go over the wall,” Lane said. “It was amazing. Rounding the bases, I was smiling the whole way.”
Game three (game two of the doubleheader) was a back and forth affair until the Cardinals put up four runs in the bottom of inning six, leading Ball State to a 10-7 win and sophomore right-handed pitcher Sam Klein picking up his ninth save of the season. Fifth-year first baseman Trenton Quartermaine hit 2-3 with three RBI and a home run, while Cole went 2-4 with four RBI and a home run, and Dobbins hit 3-3 with two RBI and a home run.
After the first series of the season, Dobbins was sidelined with injury for just under two months until making his return April 16. In this series, Dobbins would hit 6-15 with five RBI and a home run, including a walk-off single in game four.
“It was hard to come back but I knew that I would,” Dobbins said. “This weekend I knew I had to perform like I did because this is a good team, so I knew I had to hit RBIs.”
In the aforementioned game four, senior right-handed pitcher Casey Bargo would turn in a pitching performance where he wasn't credited with the win, although he pitched seven and ⅔ innings, only allowing three hits, one run and striking out five while walking no Central Michigan batters. Leading up to the ninth innings dramatics, the Cardinals put on a slugfest which would see Cole, Lane and Quartermaine hit a home run.
The Chippewas and Cardinals again went back and forth, until the game came down to the bottom of the ninth inning where the bases were loaded after a double from Lane and two intentional walks. Central Michigan subbed out one of its outfielders for a fifth infielder, but Dobbins served a line drive over the left fielder's head for a walk-off single and a series sweep for the Cardinals, 4-3.
Overall, junior shortstop Justin Simpson led the Chippewas for the weekend, hitting 4-10 with seven RBI and a home run.
In the celebration of game four, Dobbins said “if we can beat them four times, we can beat anybody four times” and Cole said the four-game series was the most fun he has ever had on a baseball field. With Central Michigan leading the MAC heading into the series, Cole said he knew many doubted the Cardinals in this series, which served as motivation.
“A lot of guys online picked Central Michigan over us and for us, it's just fuel on the fire, really we really like to hear that we're the underdog,” Cole said. “We like to hear that we can do something because then when we go out there and we do it, it makes it that much sweeter.”
Ball Diamond at First Merchant’s Park had full bleachers all weekend for the series, and both players and coaches thanked the fans for their support and thought the fan interaction had a genuine impact on the games.
It was so nice to have nice crowds, I think the whole atmosphere was great,” Maloney said. “It helps when you make plays and you have stuff to cheer about. I think everything was on cue, I think we had great enthusiasm in the booth, we had great music, we had a great crowd, we had First Merchant’s doing their day, we had our team performing well, we had the president [Geoffrey Mearns] over here, we had our new [men’s] Basketball coach [Michael Lewis] show up. It’s just a special moment right now.”
Maloney said he will give the Cardinals two days off due to their success this weekend and with finals week coming up for all students at Ball State. He said the Cardinals have three big series ahead of them in order to hold on to first place in the MAC, but they are prepared.
“This is what we've been groomed for, so this kind of stress and moments our team has been in has been building well,” Maloney said. "In the last three years, it's really built up for the moment like this.”
The Cardinals return to action May 6-8 for a four-game series against the Kent State Golden Flashes (17-21, 12-13 MAC) in Kent, Ohio. First pitch for May 6 is scheduled for 5 p.m.