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Bracket Busters: Ball State, Central Michigan Series Is A Showcase For The MAC

Central Michigan righthander Jordan Patty and Ball State righthander John Baker (Photos courtesy of Central Michigan and Ball State)

The Mid-American Conference season has been building to this weekend’s showdown in Mount Pleasant, Mich., between Ball State (28-12, 19-5) and Central Michigan (28-11, 20-4). The two teams are the best in the conference and separated by just one game in the standings, with the Chippewas holding the edge.

They’re similarly constructed, with strong pitching staffs, veteran lineups and quality defenses. The teams are so alike that they each have one of a pair of brothers. Ball State center fielder Aaron Simpson and CMU shortstop Justin Simpson are on opposite sides of the showdown.

Just based on that—two seemingly evenly matched teams, duking it out at the top of the MAC standings—this weekend would be a quality series to watch. But because the MAC last year canceled its conference tournament (in most sports, not only baseball) as part of a move to save money when the economy slowed during the pandemic and a fall sports season was uncertain, this weekend carries significantly higher stakes.

The MAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament—and for more than 25 years the conference hasn’t gotten any at-large bids—will be awarded to the regular-season champion. That makes this weekend all the more important. It’s a two-team race for the MAC title—third-place Western Michigan is four games behind Ball State—and they’re set to go head-to-head for four games.

“It’s exciting,” Ball State coach Rich Maloney said. “It’s exciting for the kids to play in something like that. These are really good teams. We’re excited to compete and I’m sure Central Michigan is too.”

In a normal year, this weekend’s series would be an important one, with implications on the regular-season title, but it would be part of the larger build up to the MAC Tournament. In a conference like the MAC, there are mixed feelings about the tournament. Players enjoy the competitive atmosphere and it gives more teams a chance to make the NCAA Tournament. But it also means the conference might not send its best team to the NCAA Tournament.

The MAC’s decision last spring to do away with the conference tournament for baseball and seven other sports was not just for 2021, but for four years. That’s likely to be reversed thanks to a better economic outlook and a more normal 2020-21 sports calendar than initially anticipated. But, at least for this season, the decision to go without a conference tournament has produced a showcase for the MAC.

Both Maloney and CMU coach Jordan Bischel were quick to say that the MAC title doesn’t come down to this weekend. The teams could split the four-game series and, no matter what, both teams still will have 12 games to be played over the last three weekends. Even if there is a series winner this weekend, that team will have to be careful not to slip up down the stretch or it could still lose the league title.

“We feel good about our team, but I have no doubt they feel good about theirs,” Bischel said. “It’s one of those things where somebody’s got to lose but they’re two pretty good teams, I think.”

The series gets underway Friday with a blockbuster matchup on the mound between CMU’s Jordan Patty and Ball State’s John Baker. Patty has thrown 38 straight scoreless innings and last week threw a perfect game against Miami (Ohio) in a 14-0 victory shortened to seven innings due to the run rule.

Patty (6-1, 1.73) has been excellent for CMU since moving into the rotation late in 2019. As the Chippewas’ No. 3 starter, he won the games that clinched both the MAC regular-season and tournament titles. He’s continued that success over the last two years, while moving to the front of the rotation.

“As the No. 3, he pitched a lot of big games,” Bischel said. “Sometimes you pitch the bigger game at the end of the year in the No. 3 slot.”

Baker (5-2, 2.47), a fifth-year senior, already owns the program record for strikeouts and will finish his career as perhaps the most accomplished pitcher in program history—a history that includes the likes of Bryan Bullington, the No. 1 overall pick in 2001; Indians righthander Zach Plesac and Baker’s former teammates Drey Jameson and Kyle Nicolas, both of whom were top-two round picks the last two years.

Unlike Jameson and Nicolas, who both have big, powerful arms, Baker isn’t overpowering. But he’s had consistent success for the Cardinals since 2017 and has an excellent understanding of what he needs to do to win.

“Johnny is experienced and successful,” Maloney said. “He’s one of the best in the country as far as pitchability goes—throughout his career. It’s not like he’s a one-year phenom.”

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Following a showdown between two players who stand out for their pitchability, the series will continue with a matchup between the top pitching prospects in the series: Ball State’s Chayce McDermott (7-1, 2.88) and CMU’s Andrew Taylor (7-3, 1.45). McDermott ranks No. 198 in this year’s draft and Taylor next year has top-five rounds upside.

Both staffs have depth beyond their excellent 1-2 punch. Ball State lefthander Lukas Jaksich (6-1, 2.55) gives the Cardinals another strong starter and CMU feels great when it can get to closer Ian Leatherman (3-1, 3.04, 4 SV).

Offensively, Ball State and CMU both have veterans leading the way. The Cardinals are paced by Nick Powell (.323/.424/.481), Noah Navarro (.323/.484/.468, 8 SB) and Ross Messina (.322/.392/.503, 5 HR), all of whom have played a lot of college baseball. Freshman shortstop Adam Tellier (.320/.424/.430, 10 SB) offers a lot of upside.

For CMU, the story is similar. Seniors Zach Gillies (.370/.512/.433, 14 SB) and Zach Heeke (.331/.458/.468) have been productive hitters for the Chippewas throughout their careers.

“What you see is a tough lineup to pitch to,” Bischel said. “We’re not going to get ourselves out all that often. I wouldn’t say we have dominant hitters by any means but each guy has his own plan. That makes it tough on a pitcher.”

These are the top two fielding teams in the MAC. Ball State (.975) has a slight edge on CMU (.974), but neither makes many miscues. Catchers Chase Sebby (Ball State) and Griffin Lockwood-Powell (CMU) are the two best defenders in the conference.

The way both teams are built, they are dangerous not only in the MAC during the regular season, but also during the NCAA Tournament. No host would want to see Ball State or CMU placed in their region and have to contend with Baker, McDermott and Jaksich or Patty and Taylor, not to mention a veteran offense and strong defense. Both teams would bring plenty of belief into regionals as well. Ball State this season won a series at Kentucky and split four games at Arizona. CMU this year won a series at West Virginia and in 2019, with many of these same players, beat Miami in its first game of the Starkville Regional.

No matter which of these teams wins the MAC, the conference has a chance to produce a Cinderella. And it’s fair to ask whether both teams deserve to make the NCAA Tournament. Ball State has the better RPI at No. 65, but CMU doesn’t lag too far behind at No. 79. Both teams figure to win more than 35 games this season and could well push 40 wins. If they split this weekend and both close well down the stretch, both will see their RPIs rise, and the Cardinals in particular could get theirs into a range typical of at-large teams. Top-50-or-so RPIs, combined with 38 or more wins and a close 1-2 finish in the conference should be enough to get them to the NCAA Tournament bubble, at least.

The MAC has not produced multiple NCAA Tournament teams in the same year since 1994. In this unique season, however, with these special teams, it shouldn’t be out of the question. No matter what, the MAC is well positioned to crash this year’s NCAA Tournament party with the Cards or the Chips.

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