Three Strikes: Central Michigan Controlling MAC, Runaway Conference Leaders, DBU on the Move
Central Michigan the Monsters of the MAC Once Again
It’s not hyperbole to say that Central Michigan has been just about unbeatable in the MAC, because that’s simply the reality of a team that’s 21-1 in conference play and winners of 18 games in a row overall.
The Chippewas’ last loss was on March 27 on the road against Iowa and their only MAC loss was a 1-0 defeat to Kent State in walk-off fashion in their very first MAC game of the season.
“Thanks for bringing that up, I had kind of washed it from my memory,” Central Michigan coach Jordan Bischel joked. “It’s funny how baseball works like that.”
Currently, CMU sits three games up in the loss column on second-place Ball State, ahead of a massive series between the two this weekend in Muncie, Ind.
Those two teams are so far ahead of the rest of the field—the Cardinals are five games clear of third-place Toledo—that winning this series appears to be BSU’s last and only chance to insert itself back into the conference title race and a CMU series win in Muncie would make it statistically improbable, if not quite statistically impossible, for anyone to catch it.
The MAC playing four-game series this season has allowed CMU to pile up victories quickly, to the point that it has almost snuck up on Bischel how well his team has performed.
“It is really hard to win a four-game series, which makes it kind of hard to fathom that we’ve done it so many weeks in a row,” Bischel said.
This is the third consecutive full season in which Central Michigan has been the class of the MAC, with the 2019 and 2021 teams both having won conference regular-season titles and automatic bids into regionals.
The 2019 team was fairly young, or perhaps unproven is the better word, as its core was primarily made up of sophomores and juniors who were coming into their own. The 2021 team, featuring mostly the same group of players, ended up being extremely veteran, albeit without its best position player in Zavier Warren, who was a third-round pick in 2020.
And that dovetails into what’s impressive about this 2022 team. There are a small handful of players still on campus who were contributors in 2019, but it’s mostly a squad made up of players who forced their way into prominent roles as young players despite the veteran nature of the group over the last couple of years or players who are just now getting their chance to shine.
In other words, this isn’t one group of players experiencing prolonged success together. This is a sustained era of success crossing several different classes of players who have put up a combined 82-15 MAC record over three seasons.
“They’re such good teammates to each other, and I think what that’s allowed us to do is not have anybody that feels like they’re being relied on to carry the load,” Bischel said. “So when you lose a guy like (Zach) Gilles or a guy like (Zach) Heeke or Zavier Warren, there’s an attitude of everybody just doing their fair share, everybody pulling the rope. I think it takes a lot of pressure off and allows the next guy to step in and just be himself.”
Anyone who has followed Central Michigan over the last two seasons has become well aware of the exploits of righthander Andrew Taylor. He finished last season with a 1.81 ERA, 125 strikeouts and a .189 opponent batting average in 94.1 innings.
This season, he’s been just as good, with a 2.03 ERA, 79 strikeouts and a .185 opponent batting average in 53.1 innings. In MAC play, the ERA dropped to 1.32 and the batting average against him fell to .169.
Taylor still leads with an electric fastball. The pitch sits in the low 90s and has touched as high as 94 mph this season, and it’s just one of those pitches that opposing hitters never seem to square up.
Taylor can control a game with that one pitch when he’s at his best, but this season, he’s been able to mix it up more, as his fastball usage is down a touch from 82% last season to 77% this season.
“What’s helped him this year is he’s really continuing to develop the secondary stuff,” Bischel said. “There have been games where he doesn’t use (his secondaries) a ton because he’s been awfully successful with his fastball, but there are other games, like the Ohio game would be an example, (where) he kind of did lose his fastball command and this year he’s had a little bit better ability to use his secondary stuff to get outs. And obviously as he gets to the pro level, that’s going to be important for him.”
CMU has also discovered some depth on the mound, which has not only been a necessity given the four-game series in the MAC, but has also helped steady the ship as stalwarts like righthander Jordan Patty (4-2, 5.77) and lefthander Grant Navarra (5-2, 6.37) came out of the gate slowly.
Righthander Logan Buczkowski (2-1, 3.98) and lefthander Adam Mrakitsch (2.11, 21.1 IP), who has done some starting and relieving as a freshman, plus Murray State transfer closer Jake Jones (3.38 ERA, 5 SV), have helped provide the depth needed to allow Patty and Navarra the time to come around, which they have with 3.26 and 3.99 ERAs in the MAC thus far.
“Patty and Navarra got off to pretty slow starts this year and you couldn’t really put your finger on why, but you kind of trust that they would turn it around and they have,” Bischel said. “They’ve thrown it really well since league play started.”
What’s the same about this year’s lineup compared to last year is that the Chippewas are going to take their walks. They’ve been issued 228 of them, good for 10th in the country coming out of last weekend, one year after taking 334 walks, which was fourth nationally.
The difference is that last year’s team mostly wanted to take advantage of those free passes by getting things going on the bases and stringing hits together, which was made easier by the presence of the now-graduated Zach Gilles, who had 25 bunt hits and stole 23 bases.
There are some players on this CMU team that can make things happen on the bases like outfielder Jacob Marsee (.341/.472/.563), who has 15 stolen bases, and shortstop Justin Simpson (.298/.445/.360), who has 11. But the Chippewas are just as likely now to clear the bases with an extra-base hit, as their team doubles total (92) and home run total (24) have already eclipsed the totals from the 2021 season.
Marsee, second baseman Mario Camilletti (.382/.514/.544), third baseman Aidan Shepardson (.373/.464/.480) and first baseman Danny Wuestenfeld (.346/.449/.559) all also have double-digit doubles totals, already giving CMU more players with 10 or more doubles than it had last season.
“There’s more ability to drive it in the gaps and out of the park,” Bischel said. “We’re hitting a lot more extra-base hits and some of that is coming from second-year guys who are just coming into their own now, so it’s a different dynamic offensively. We’ve got a little bit more firepower through the order which has been nice.”
If Central Michigan ends up winning the automatic bid in the MAC for the third straight year, host teams have to hope that in the process the Chippewas did enough to earn a spot as a three seed, because as it stands right now, they are a nightmare of a four seed.
Not only would seeing CMU opposite you in the opening game mean facing Taylor, but it would mean having to do battle with a team that won a game in Starkville in regionals in 2019 and won two games in South Bend last season. The Chippewas will expect to win, and that kind of belief is a powerful thing for an underdog.
“We understand when we show up on the field with Miami or Mississippi State or Notre Dame, we’re probably not going to win the scouting combine,” Bischel said. “We’ve got some pro players, we’ve moved a lot of guys on, but we’re going to lose that. We’re not going to beat them in tools. But (the players) see that if we really play our style of baseball, and stay committed as a group to doing the things that we’ve seen make us successful, it’s going to work.”
Celebrating Teams Dominating Conference Play
In honor of Central Michigan controlling the MAC the way it has this season, let’s take a look at other teams that have built out comfortable leads in the standings.
- Tennessee, SEC - The Volunteers, who just set the record for the best start in SEC history with a 17-1 record, are five games better than Arkansas, which has the next best record in the conference, and six games better than Georgia, which is the second-place team in the East. Tennessee is on pace to have one of the best regular seasons in college baseball history.
- Miami, ACC - At 16-5 in the ACC, Miami is three games ahead of both Virginia and Virginia Tech in the Coastal Division and three-and-a-half games better than the top teams in the Atlantic Division, Notre Dame and Louisville. In an ACC that’s been very muddled, the Hurricanes have risen to the top.
- Southern Mississippi, Conference USA - At 16-2 in Conference USA, Southern Mississippi is four games ahead of Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio. Along the way, it has also climbed to No. 6 in the rankings and is in very good shape to host a regional for the third time in program history.
- UC Santa Barbara, Big West - UCSB continues to be one of the most consistent programs on the West Coast. This season, it’s off to a 16-2 start in conference play, which places the Gauchos three-and-a-half games up on Cal Poly, with the two teams set to meet this weekend in San Luis Obispo. With no Big West Tournament, UCSB could wrap up an automatic bid to regionals with time to spare this season.
- College of Charleston, Colonial - Northeastern was the preseason pick in the CAA and UNC-Wilmington is always a popular choice to win the title, but instead it’s College of Charleston that has found its way to the top. The Cougars are 13-2 in CAA play, three-and-a-half games up on UNCW.
- Nevada-Las Vegas, Mountain West - The Rebels have run out to a 17-4 record in the Mountain West, four games ahead of rival Nevada in second place. An MWC regular-season championship would be UNLV’s first of any kind since tying for the title in 2014 and an outright title would be its first since 2005.
- Maine, America East - Maine is three games better than the team with the second-best record in the America East, Stony Brook. It is also a staggering eight games better than the second-place teams in its particular division within the America East, Albany and Massachusetts-Lowell. The Black Bears are looking for their first postseason appearance since 2011.
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What Dallas Baptist’s Move Means for the Patriots, C-USA and the MVC
Dallas Baptist last week announced its intention to have its baseball program compete as an affiliate member of Conference USA beginning next season.
The move won’t send national shockwaves through college athletics, but it is a massive change within college baseball that will have ripple effects for all parties involved.
For Conference USA, the addition is nothing short of a no-brainer. With Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Marshall, Old Dominion, Rice, Southern Mississippi and Texas-San Antonio all set to depart over the next two years, the conference was in need not just of warm bodies, but also some quality to mitigate the loss of most of its best baseball programs.
While it still on paper isn’t going to be as good a baseball conference as it has been in its last couple of iterations, a C-USA built around DBU, Liberty, Louisiana Tech and Sam Houston State should still be able to hold its own and be a multi-bid league in its best seasons.
For DBU, the decision perhaps isn’t as clear cut, but it makes sense. The Missouri Valley is a quality baseball conference, and a two-bid conference more often than not, but it’s often a two-bid conference in large part because of the quality DBU brings to the table.
DBU has made a regional each year it has been a member of the MVC, so it goes without saying that each time the MVC has been a multi-bid league, DBU has been one of those teams. There’s little reason to believe that the Patriots can’t have that same kind of effect on a new-look C-USA that already appears at least marginally better than the MVC it’s leaving.
There’s also the geography component. The new C-USA will feature some long trips, including those made to places like Miami to play Florida International and Lynchburg, Va. to play Liberty, but every trip in the MVC was a long trip for DBU, and C-USA will at least give the Patriots a couple of relatively quick road trips to places like Huntsville, Texas and Ruston, La.
There’s no getting around that it’s a tough loss for the MVC. It’s a league that cares about baseball and has continued to punch above its weight, even in the face of programs with history like Wichita State and Creighton leaving the league, with plenty of thanks owed to DBU for that.
The league is expanding to add Belmont, Illinois-Chicago and Murray State, mostly with an eye toward basketball. While UIC in particular has some quality baseball history, and Belmont has potential, they don’t make up for the loss of DBU, and on balance, the additions may hurt the league from a baseball standpoint as the quality gets watered down.
DBU’s move to Conference USA was unique in that it’s the rare, and perhaps unprecedented, move solely made for baseball purposes. We know it’s going to have far-reaching trickle-down effects for the program and the leagues as time goes on, but only time will tell what those effects are exactly.