Growing up in Sanborn, Minnesota, a town of less than 400 people, Decker Scheffler had never truly gone through struggles when it came to baseball. Even in his first year at Ball State in 2021, he immediately made an impact, hitting .288 and playing in 45 of 58 games.
In the process, he emerged as a player to watch in Ball State’s future. However, he still had to compete with former Cardinals outfielder Zach Cole for an everyday spot the next season.
Cole went on to earn All-MAC First Team honors and now resides in the Houston Astros’ farm system. Scheffler played in just 27 of 59 games with a batting average of .129.
“As hard of a sport as baseball is, I've never really gone through a struggle like that before,” Scheffler said. “It was something that I had to overcome for really the first time [in] my whole life.”
Scheffler said there was a point last season where he knew his time was up to make an impact, so he instead shifted his focus towards making improvements to earn back his spot in the lineup for 2023.
“All summer long I was just thinking, ‘I don't want to experience that again,’” Scheffler said. “I came in this year with a nothing to lose attitude.”
Head coach Rich Maloney said he was surprised when Scheffler struggled in 2022 after his successful freshman season. However, drawing from his 29 seasons as a Division I head coach, Maloney knew Scheffler’s season of setback would prove to be make or break.
Through 40 games in 2023, Scheffler is batting .372, the fifth-highest average in the Mid-American Conference (MAC), in the most at-bats of his collegiate career at 121 with 35 games started.
“He stayed the course,” Maloney said. “He could have left, he could have pouted, he could have done any number of things, but he stayed. There's so much gratification as a coach when you see someone stick through the process.”
The process is not something junior pitcher Trennor O’Donnell wanted to go through another year in 2022. Heading into last season, the Texas native expressed his desire to become Ball State’s number-one option on the mound. Instead, that spot was filled by left-hander Tyler Schwietzer, who went on to win MAC Pitcher of the Year and currently plays in the Chicago White Sox’s minor league system.
O’Donnell said he wasn’t physically ready, nor was he mature enough to take the “ace” role in Ball State’s rotation in 2022. He said he went into the summer ready to use that disappointment to drive him toward making the necessary strides to improve.
“Baseball is such a mental game that when something doesn't go your way, you can't let it just eat at you,” O’Donnell said.
From a physical standpoint, the right-hander said he wanted to work on throwing harder more consistently, and forcing more swings and misses with his slider. Through 10 appearances in the 2023 season, O’Donnell is 3-2 with 63 strikeouts and a career-best 2.89 ERA on 56 innings of work.
“Big Tex,” as he is called by his coaches and teammates, has officially taken over as the Cardinals’ number one option.
“It feels really good knowing that the work that I put in is paying off,” O’Donnell said, laughing.
While Maloney understood O’Donnell’s frustrations with how last season went, the 29th-season head coach said he feels the Texan is on track with his natural progression as a third-year starter. Maloney, who recently passed 600 career wins as Ball State’s head coach, felt O’Donnell needed to be “battle tested” before truly becoming the pitcher he set out to be and the Cardinals hoped he would be.
“Trennor’s competitive fire has grown,” Maloney said. “He’s always had it, but now it’s grown greater. That’s what happens when you mature and gain confidence.”
Scheffler said he’s been able to maintain his confidence this season when things don’t go his way because the struggles he went through last season helped him put something into perspective: Baseball is a game of failure.
In Major League Baseball (MLB), if a player has a career batting average over .300, they’re considered a Hall of Fame level hitter. Batters who hit .300 only get base hits three out of every 10 at-bats, on average.
“You have to go through the struggle to be great,” Maloney said. “If you don't experience the struggle, you'll never reach your full potential … You can’t survive if you don’t learn that lesson.”
The Cardinals (26-14, 13-5 MAC) return to action in a three-game weekend series in Bowling Green, Ohio, against the Falcons (14-23, 8-13) April 28-30. Game one is set for 3 p.m. on the 28th.