WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. –– Justin Conant stood in front of the fence of the visitor’s dugout at Alexander Field, slightly smiling and shaking his head.
As the overhead speakers blared victorious music in favor of the Purdue Boilermakers, Conant tried to sum up the words after a Ball State defeat.
“I don’t know…We’re just in a funk right now,” the senior second baseman said.
The Cardinals began the season 23-7, at one point boasting a nine-game winning streak. They’ve now lost six straight with their 3-2 loss to Purdue (17-18, 7-5 B1GTEN), falling to 23-13.
Conant said he didn’t think he had ever lost six straight games in his five years at Ball State. He hadn’t.
Not since 2017, when the Cardinals dropped nine straight, have they lost more than four consecutive contests.
“In all seasons, there’s highs and lows,” Ball State head coach Rich Maloney said. “All of a sudden we got smacked in the face a little bit, and now we got to fight back.”
The game started quietly, as each squad went down 1-2-3 in the first inning. Although each side got a runner on, neither the Boilermakers nor the Cardinals were able to score in the second either. By the time the top of the third came around, Purdue’s junior catcher Connor Caskenette had the only hit of the contest.
Conant singled for the first Ball State hit of the game in the third, but was stranded to end the inning. However, after junior third baseman Jo Stevens singled early in the bottom of the third for Purdue, he was driven in by an RBI single from junior center fielder Couper Cornblum to give the Boilermakers a 1-0 lead heading into the fourth.
Ball State’s starting pitcher, senior right hander Tanner Knapp, was replaced by junior left handed pitcher Will Jacobson after the runner scored. Knapp pitched two and 2/3 innings, allowing three hits, no walks and striking out two.
After another inning without base runners for Ball State, Purdue continued its onslaught with two more runs in the bottom of the fourth. In three consecutive at-bats, Caskenette singled to lead off the frame, senior first baseman Jake Parr followed with a single of his own, and junior second baseman Paul Totez drove Caskenette in with a double. Then, Jacobson threw a wild pitch to allow Parr to cross home.
The score stood 3-1 in the Boilermakers’ favor in the bottom of the fifth when sophomore right hander Logan Schulfer entered the game for Ball State, ending Jacobson’s two innings where he allowed three hits, two runs and one walk with two strikeouts.
Junior right hander CJ Backer, Purdue’s starting pitcher, largely dominated the Cardinals in his five innings of work, allowing one hit, no runs, one walk and striking out seven. To start the sixth inning, junior right hander Davis Pratt took over for the Boilermakers.
In Pratt’s first at-bat in relief, Conant singled for his second knock of the game. The next at-bat junior left fielder Nick Gregory drew a walk. Then, senior shortstop Adam Tellier hit a dribbler to Pratt that the reliever couldn’t handle.
With the bases loaded for Ryan Peltier, the Cardinals’ leading hitter, the graduate student third baseman grounded into a fielder’s choice that saw Conant snuffed out at home. However, junior first baseman Decker Scheffler delivered in the next at-bat, hitting a sacrifice fly that drove in Gregory.
After senior right fielder Logan Flood flew out to left field to end the top half of the inning, only one of the Cardinals’ four baserunners to start the inning crossed home.
With two outs in the top of the seventh, junior Jalen Martinez pinch hit for senior center fielder Zach Lane and reached base after Totez misplayed a ground ball at second base. In the next at-bat, Conant was walked and Ball State had runners on first and second.
Gregory answered the call for the Cardinals, driving in Martinez with an RBI single to left field. As the crowd partook in the seventh inning stretch, the game stood 3-2.
Though Martinez singled with two outs in the top of the ninth to put the tying run on base, the Cardinals couldn’t push him across, putting the final nail in the coffin for Ball State. Backer picked up his first win of the season, as Knapp earned his second loss.
Both Schulfer and Dannelley stood out in relief with nearly identical statlines, with the Cardinals’ reliever allowing two hits, no runs, no walks and striking out three in two and ⅓ innings of work, and the Boilermakers’ reliever posting the same line minus one hit.
“Right now instead of finding ways to win, we're finding ways to lose,” Maloney said. “In this game in particular, we didn't play bad, we just didn't hit.”
The Ball State pitching staff allowed a season low one walk in the contest, but these efforts were negated by an atypical four-hit performance on offense. The Cardinals’ head coach said he didn’t feel like the 3-2 loss was at all related to a differential in talent. While Purdue is in a Power 5 conference and Ball State is in a mid-major, Maloney said conferences don’t matter as much in baseball as they do in other college sports, he said it simply boils down to who plays better on that given day.
When asked what he has learned during this six game skid, Conant laughed and kept it short.
“Losing sucks,” he said.
Conant, who finished with two of Ball State’s four hits, said the Cardinals need to come together and play for each other.
“Hopefully, at the end of the season, we're gonna look back and laugh,” Conant said. “Everybody goes through a funk, like I said earlier, but we just got to stay positive. We're a good team, and we know what type of baseball that we can play.”
In the same vein, Maloney said the Cardinals have to get back to who they are: a club that competes and plays with grit. With two practices to go before the Cardinals’ three-game weekend series against Northern Illinois (7-26, 4-10 MAC), the 29th-season head coach said it’s “gut check time.”
“In other words, you fight your way through adversity,” Maloney said. “Right now, we got to fight our way through this.”
The Huskies and Cardinals square off in game one of their weekend series at 3 p.m. April 21 at Ball Diamond at First Merchant’s Ballpark Complex in Muncie.