“This is yours,” Ball State baseball head coach Rich Maloney said. “You got one more batter and we’re dogpiling. This is what you dream of.”
Before the No. 3 seed Cardinals’ Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship Tournament Final game against No. 1 seed Kent State, Jacob Hartlaub had pitched just 23 and ⅔ innings in the 2023 season. After battling injuries throughout the campaign, the sophomore was in what he called the biggest at-bat of his life.
Ball State was up 12-9 over the Golden Flashes in the bottom of the ninth inning, but there were two runners on base and the tying run was at the plate. Maloney called a mound visit, where he and the rest of the Cardinals’ infield spoke the aforementioned words of encouragement to Hartlaub.
“They told me I got it, that I’m the one, that I was meant for this moment,” Hartlaub said.
He did have it. Strike three was called and Hartlaub threw his glove into the air and outstretched his arms as the Cardinals mobbed the winning pitcher near the mound.
“You don't feel great at the bottom of the dog pile, but afterwards, it's a great feeling, [and] you love it,” Hartlaub said. “That's what you live for.”
It’s something Ball State (36-21) hadn’t experienced in 17 years, as this win marked its first MAC Championship Tournament victory since 2006, and punched a ticket to NCAA Regional play.
“The feeling is like nothing I’ve ever experienced in my life,” senior shortstop Adam Tellier said. “It just means a lot not only for our team but for Ball State.”
But, it wasn’t an easy road to get there.
Ball State wasted no time in the top of the first. To start the inning, graduate student third baseman Ryan Peltier drew a walk before junior right fielder Decker Scheffler singled to right field. In a bit of smart base running, Peltier scored on a throwing error to put the Cardinals up 1-0.
Scheffler advanced to third base on a groundout before eventually being driven in on a junior designated hitter Jalen Martinez groundout. With sophomore catcher Hunter Dobbins (walk) and freshman first baseman Blake Bevis (single) on base, Kent State redshirt senior starting pitcher Ben Cruikshank struck out senior left fielder Zach Lane to hold Ball State’s lead to two.
Golden Flashes catcher Justin Miknis drew a walk with one out in the bottom of the first before junior shortstop Michael McNamara ripped an RBI double down the third base line as Kent State struck back to make it a 2-1 game heading into the second inning.
Although senior second baseman Justin Conant and Peltier reached base via walk, the Cardinals went down relatively quietly in the top of the second. Graduate student starting pitcher Ty Weatherly put away the Golden Flashes in order to end the inning.
The third inning ultimately proved to be the most pivotal. Dobbins walked and Martinez singled to start things off before Bevis crushed a three-run home run to left center field in the biggest hit of his life. After Lane was walked, sophomore pitcher Peyton Cariaco relieved Cruikshank of his duties.
Kent State’s starter allowed five runs on four hits, six walks and one strikeout in two innings of work.
Fighting a four-run deficit, graduate student center fielder Collin Matthews doubled with one out in the bottom of the third to get things going for the Golden Flashes. Matthews later advanced to third base on a passed ball before coming around to score on junior first baseman Aidan Longwell’s RBI groundout.
In the top of the fourth, the Cardinals continued their offensive onslaught when Peltier started things off with a single. After advancing to second on a wild pitch, Scheffler finished the job with an RBI single to put Ball State ahead 6-2.
Kent State recorded an out before Dobbins hit a single to keep the red and white hot. With runners on first and third, Martinez hit into a fielder’s choice that earned him an RBI and the Cardinals extended their lead to five.
Three straight groundouts in the bottom of the fourth meant the Golden Flashes remained down 7-2. Ball State senior left fielder Logan Flood’s solo home run changed that to lead off the fifth inning.
Cariaco earned two outs to follow, but was relieved by junior Calvin Bickerstaff after two and ⅔ innings of work. Cariaco allowed three runs on four hits, one walk and one strikeout.
Though Matthews singled, he was stranded on base as Weatherly worked to once again hold Kent State scoreless in the bottom of the fifth.
Similarly, Ball State earned one hit courtesy of a single from senior shortstop Adam Tellier, but were otherwise shut down in the top of the sixth. Weatherly surrendered two straight walks with one out in the bottom of the inning, but worked his way out of the jam with no runs or hits allowed.
Bevis singled to start the top of the seventh, leading to freshman Ciaran Caughey replacing Bickerstaff on the mound. Bickerstaff allowed no runs on two hits, three strikeouts and no walks in one and ⅔ innings of work.
Caughy recorded an out before walking junior center fielder Nick Gregory and hitting Conant to load the bases for the Cardinals, who were unable to capitalize, but remained in the lead 8-2. But not for long.
Sophomore designated hitter Jake Casey doubled to start the bottom of the seventh, ending Weatherly’s day after six innings of work, with two runs allowed on four hits, four walks and a strikeout. Senior right fielder Josh Mrozek was the first batter junior Sam Klein faced, and the result was telling of the offensive downpour soon to come.
Mrozek’s RBI double was the first of five runs allowed in the seventh inning, as Matthews, Longwell and McNamara each collected RBI hits off Klein as well. By the time junior Ryan Brown came in to replace Klein, the score sat 8-6.
Junior third baseman Kyle Jackson immediately hit an RBI single off Brown to put Kent State within one run of Ball State. Brown walked the next two batters before sophomore Jacob Hartlaub entered for the Cardinals to try and end the nightmare seventh inning.
He did so, but the worst was yet to come for Ball State.
Graduate student Mitchell Scott, the nation’s leader in saves, entered for the Golden Flashes in the top of the eighth. While the Cardinals got a runner on base off Martinez’s single, they failed to score.
As the score sat 8-7 in Ball State’s favor with six outs to go, Hartlaub surrendered a leadoff walk in the bottom of the eighth before Miknis blasted a two-run home run to right center field to give Kent State the lead. Hartlaub allowed no more damage afterward, but the Golden Flashes had the 9-8 advantage and needed just three outs to force a winner-take-all final contest.
It looked like they would do so when Scott retired the first two Cardinals in the top of the ninth, however, Conant’s double followed by Peltier and Scheffler’s walks loaded the bases for Tellier. The All-MAC Second Team member delivered the biggest swing of his life with a grand slam over the left center field fence to put Ball State back in front at the last possible second.
Tellier said although he was just looking to keep the inning alive, he didn’t want to let his teammates down. He said he was looking for a pitch up in the zone, and when he got it, he knew the ball was “pretty much gone.”
“We kind of felt it slipping away from us, but we knew that it wasn’t over,” Tellier said. “‘Next Man Up’ has been our memo and we’ve just gritted everything out. It really just comes to show the true character of this team.”
The bottom of the ninth started eerily similar to the top, as Hartlaub sat down the first two Kent State batters and needed just one more out to secure victory. However, Mrozek doubled and Matthews was hit by pitch to put two runners on base with the game on the line.
You know the rest. Hartlaub completed the biggest at-bat of his life with a strikeout to clinch the 12-9 victory for Ball State.
“Whenever something big happens, we just take a deep breath and come back to neutral,” Hartlaub said. “Whether we're getting punched or we're punching them.”
To get to this moment, Ball State had to take a lot of punches.
Last season, Ball State began the MAC Championship Tournament the same way as this season, winning the first two games, however, they lost two straight to Central Michigan to fall just short of the conference tournament crown. Last weekend, the Cardinals were swept at home by Kent State (42-16), outscored 54-19 in the process.
Maloney called last weekend’s sweep to the Golden Flashes “embarassing”, but said the Cardinals used it to light a fire under them for the MAC Championship Tournament.
“The guys went from that horrible weekend to the greatest weekend that we've had in Ball State history,” Maloney said. “This was a moment for all of our Ball State family.”
Although he made four appearances as head coach at the University of Michigan, this is Maloney’s first trip to the NCAA Regionals as the Cardinals’ skipper. After 18 seasons and over 600 wins as Ball State’s head coach, Maloney said this victory felt like the culmination of it all.
“It was euphoric, it was a relief,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
Tellier has been in the program for four of Maloney’s 18 seasons, falling just short of a regional appearance twice and getting his freshman season cut short due to COVID-19. While he knows their work isn’t done, Tellier felt this victory was like the end of a journey.
“It’s been a long four years,” Tellier said. “Our ultimate goal has always been to make it to a regional, and to be able to give ourselves the chance to do that this year is just a feeling like no other, and it's something that we'll definitely remember for a very long time.”