The Ball State baseball team heads into the 2009 season with its sights set on challenging for a Mid-American Conference championship as it returns 16 letterwinners from last season’s team which posted a 28-25 overall record and a 12-11 mark in conference play. The Cardinals, under the guidance of seventh-year head coach Greg Beals, look to build off of last season’s success and get back to the championship hunt.
“Our goal, as always, is to be Mid-American Conference champions,” Beals said. “We feel we have a chance to be serious contenders and in the championship hunt. Last year, we sniffed around the top of the MAC, being in first place for a week or two, before falling out down the stretch. Our maturity, age and experience make this team ready to maintain that position throughout the season.”
One of the Cardinals’ biggest strengths this season will be their pitching staff as they return 10 letterwinners on the mound from last season. Ball State only lost two pitchers from last season’s team and will look for the staff to continue to mature into a strong unit.
“The pitching staff is an area of our team that has improved,” Beals said. “Our strength is going to be in numbers. The quality of our staff will be based on the depth we have.”
Heading into the season, Beals will look to two returning starters in Brenden Stines and Kolbrin Vitek for spots in the weekend rotation. Stines started 12 games last season for the Cardinals with a 3-3 record while Vitek posted a 6-1 mark in his freshman campaign.
Also in the mix for the weekend rotation is Brad Piatt who recorded 11 starts last season and freshman Justin Warrington. Freshman Cal Bowling looks to get most of the non-conference midweek starts for the Cardinals this season.
Ball State’s depth will really be evident in its bullpen, despite the task of replacing closer Kyle Heyne. Heyne set the Ball State record for career saves with 32, including eight last season, before being drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 32nd round of the Major League Baseball Draft.
“The bullpen is where the strength of our team is and where our depth really shows up,” Beals said. “Replacing a guy like Kyle Heyne is a big task. We have guys that are capable of doing that. They just have to step up and take advantage of the opportunity. That is one thing we will need to address as the season goes on.”
Leading the way in the bullpen will be three seniors in captain Tom Mueller along with Adam Quinn and Eric Van Matre. Mueller tied the Ball State single season record for appearances last season with 30 as the Cardinals’ top left-hander in relief.
Also in the bullpen are two right-handers, Aaron Hammons and Heath Riley, who will pitch towards the end of games.
Heading into the season, junior college transfer Morgan Coombs will get to nod as the Cardinals’ closer in replacing Heyne.
“Coombs is in the same mold as Kyle Heyne as a side-armer, sinker, slider guy who is a great competitor,” Beals said.
Junior Zach Dygert returns to anchor the Cardinals’ backstop after earning Second Team All-Mid-American Conference accolades last year. Dygert posted a .293 batting average in 45 games with seven doubles and 13 home runs on the season. He also drove in 38 runs and posted a .613 slugging percentage, which was second best on the team.
“Dygert is the flagship of our team,” Beals said. “He is the quarterback on the field for us and has that presence on our team. He is the go-to guy for our defense.”
Redshirt freshman Aaron Etchison has taken over the backup catcher spot on the roster after a strong fall campaign.
Ball State will have an almost completely new look for the infield in 2009 due to graduation and position changes. The Cardinals will have a spot to fill at first base after the graduation of Justin Rogers and Matt Stoecklen. Ball State will replace that platoon at first base with another, as Vitek will see time at first base along with his pitching duties as well as freshman Ian Nielsen. Vitek, a Freshman All-American, posted a .305 batting average last season with 24 RBI.
“Kolbrin and Ian will split time at first base depending on Kolbrin’s pitching duties that week,” Beals said. “Ian has a great deal of power and has shown during fall ball that he is ready to compete at this level.”
Ball State will look to a familiar face in a new position at second base this season as senior Nate Fields takes over the duties in the infield. Fields spent a majority of his time last year roaming left field but moves to second base and brings with him a .331 batting average with nine home runs last season.
“Fields returns to his natural position in the infield after spending most of his time in left field and as a designated hitter last year,” Beals said. “He has taken over the position and we look for him to flourish this season.”
The lone familiar face on the infield will be sophomore T.J. Baumet who moves into the shortstop position vacated after Dean Anna was drafted in the 28th round by the San Diego Padres in the MLB Draft. Baumet made 31 starts as a true freshman last year at third base and 17 starts at second base.
“Shortstop is T.J.’s natural position,” Beals said. “He got a lot of experience last year at third base and second base. He brings a long rangy body with a lot of arm strength to shortstop this season.”
Beals will again utilize a platoon at third base as Vitek will also see time at the hot corner along with freshman Tim Issler.
“Obviously we are going to get Kolbrin in the lineup in a lot of different positions and coordinate with his pitching duties,” Beals said. “Issler will also see time at third base and will be a solid defender for us as a true freshman.”
In the infield, the Cardinals will also look for Nick von Foerster, Andrew DeYoung and Mitch Widau to provide depth and support the infield core throughout the season.
The Cardinals will bring a wealth of experience to the outfield in the 2009 season with the return of Kory Benbow, Jeremy Hazelbaker and Ryan Chenoweth. Freshman Cody Elliott will be the fourth outfielder in the mix this season for BSU.
Benbow returns to the left field position after posting a .304 batting average last year with 12 doubles and eight home runs.
“Benbow is a prototype left fielder,” Beals said. “He can run and has power in his bat. His offensive numbers improved significantly his sophomore year and we look for that to continue.”
Hazelbaker moves from second base to center field for his junior season after posting a .244 batting average with 26 RBI last year.
“Hazelbaker moves to centerfield after playing two years at second base,” Beals said. “We feel we have found his natural position as it utilizes his speed better. He had a great fall in transition to the outfield.”
Chenoweth returns to the right field position after making 28 starts there last season. He posted a .248 batting average last season with seven doubles and six home runs.
“Chenoweth is a left handed hitter in the middle of our lineup,” Beals said. “He has had a great off season and has added strength, which will enhance his offensive output this year.”
Elliott will see time in the outfield as well as the designated hitter position this year.
“Elliott is a freshman who can really run and throw,” Beals said. “He is extremely athletic and will be in the rotation in the outfield and designated hitter spot this year.”
Ball State will open the 2009 season Feb. 20 with a four-game series in Greenville, S.C. against Furman. The Cardinals will play their first 14 games away from home, including a tournament at Austin Peay, a series against nationally ranked Missouri and a midweek series at Southern Illinois.
“We have a very good non-conference schedule this season,” Beals said. “We have different challenges on our slate beginning at Furman and participating in the Austin Peay Tournament that has a strong field. Also, playing a top 20 team on the road in Missouri two weeks before we open MAC play will be a great challenge for our team.”
Ball State opens the home portion of the 2009 schedule March 13 as it hosts Chicago State in a four-game series at Ball Diamond. The March 13 date marks the earliest home date for the Cardinals since the 1995 season.
The Cardinals host five out of their nine Mid-American Conference series this season: Akron (March 20-22), Kent State (March 27-29), Central Michigan (April 17-19), Western Michigan (April 24-26) and Toledo (May 14-16). Ball State will go on the road for four series this season: Buffalo (April 3-5), Bowling Green (10-12), Eastern Michigan (May 1-3) and Northern Illinois (May 8-10).
“Our conference as a whole has great parity,” Beals said. “Our schedule is favorable to us this year as five out of nine conference weekends are at home, including closing the season at Ball Diamond.”
The 27-game conference schedule builds towards the 2009 MAC Tournament which is scheduled for May 20-24. For the second straight season, the MAC Tournament will be held at VA Memorial Stadium in Chillicothe, Ohio.