MUNCIE, Ind. — "We're not going in there scared."
That was the Ball State baseball head coach Rich Maloney sent to his team on Monday. The Cardinals enter their NCAA Regional tournament bracket as the lowest seed and will play No. 12 overall seed and host Kentucky in Friday's first round at noon on the SEC Network.
On paper, BSU (36-21) is the weakest team in a field that features the Wildcats (36-18), who stem from the heralded Southeastern Conference, as well as Indiana (41-18) and West Virginia (39-18).
But the Cardinals don't feel that way. They're coming off an all-time thrilling Mid-American Conference title victory over host and regular-season champion Kent State, a breakthrough after 17 prior years of Maloney's BSU teams coming up short.
Ball State's confidence has never been higher, and the team plans on using that momentum to its advantage.
"We're the only team going to the tournament that won their (conference) tournament," Maloney said. "So you could say we're the hottest team."
Kentucky, though, is a true contender. The Wildcats were ranked as high as ninth in the nation in early April after a 17-game win streak and winning 23 of 24 contests over a six-week stretch, but a 9-14 finish took them out of the top-25 by the end of the regular season.
The team's downturn also carried into the SEC tournament in a 4-0 loss to Alabama.
Yet under seven-year head coach Nick Mingione, the program has been dominant against MAC teams. Kentucky is 11-3 against the conference overall, with its only series loss coming at home against Ball State in 2021.
The two programs' connection also dates back to 2006, Ball State's most recent NCAA Regional appearance and Kentucky's first year hosting, when Cardinals stunned the Wildcats 3-1 in the opening game of that tournament.
Although Kentucky's likely starter, 6-foot-6-inch right-handed pitcher Darren Williams (4.08 ERA), poses a significant challenge, Maloney believes his guys are good enough to score against anyone.
"We're the fourth seed. They're supposed to beat us. Good for them. Good for us to get the opportunity to play them," Maloney said. "In our program, we've never taken a backseat to anybody. Our thought processes isn't that way. So this is a great opportunity for our young men to be on the big stage and showcase that they can play some good baseball."
Winning the MAC also gave Maloney and his players some long-desired relief. Their primary goal is accomplished and the pressure now sits on the higher seeds to live up to expectations.
"It's like that was the mountain that had to be climbed. Now we're with house money. We're free," Maloney said. "We're supposed to go down to Kentucky and they're supposed to whip us. But it's baseball. We're a good team. So for me, I think our boys are just gonna go out there, play loose, have fun and who knows? You never know. Maybe you get a little mojo going.
"The biggest hurdle was getting that monkey off their back … Get the curse away from us ... It was bad for a long time … I've been bearing that weight ... That's a lot of built up angst from our whole program because we deserved it many times over and we haven't been in it."
Ball State's quality of pitching, as it was in the MAC tournament, will be crucial. Junior Ty Johnson set the tone with a solid start in Game 1, and fifth-year Ty Weatherly's effective length in the final proved to be just enough for the Cardinals to position themselves for the ninth-inning comeback.
Senior ace Trennor O'Donnell throwing like he did in his complete-game effort in the semifinal would also be a significant boost. It was the best performance of his career and one that he said didn't drain him mentally or physically, so he's eager to try and put the team on his back again.
"I threw my bullpen (on Monday) and I'm going to continue to throw throughout the week. Coming off my last start, I feel good," O'Donnell said. "No soreness, tightness, anything. I'm ready to go. I'm excited for the next one, and coming off that last one, my confidence is going to be there for sure. So I'm going out there just going after guys like I usually do and I'm ready to go."
Getting junior relivers Sam Klein and Ryan Brown back on track is also key. The pair performed well in the MAC tournament opener against Central Michigan, only to contribute to a five-run seventh inning by Kent State in the championship three days later that nearly cost BSU the game.
Neither pitcher looked like himself. Klein allowed four hits and four earned runs while recording just one out, and Brown recorded zero outs and threw 10 consecutive balls before being pulled.
Volunteer pitching coach Zach Putnam, a veteran of both the NCAA postseason and MLB, said the key to bouncing back from such setbacks is keeping perspective.
"Those guys are high-caliber pitchers. And it's a volatile thing what we do as pitchers, especially as relievers, man. The biggest thing that I learned through many, many years of doing it at a high level was you gotta have a short memory," Putnam said. "You're not gonna have your best stuff every time you go out there, whether you feel physically a little bit off or something in between the ears isn't there, go out there and you do your best to execute.
"And if things don't go your way, take your time and evaluate it for an hour after the game is what I tell these guys, and then just flush it. Just forget about it. Come in the next day, be consistent, be the same guy and trust that the next time is gonna be better."
If BSU's top arms do their jobs, it should be able to compete with all three other offenses.
The Cardinals were lethal with two outs during the MAC tournament, scoring 14 of their 25 total runs in such situations. They were also able to play mostly-solid defense throughout, which bodes well for supporting the pitching staff.
Senior shortstop Adam Tellier, who's been bombarded with interview requests since hitting the go-ahead Grand Slam in the ninth inning of the MAC final, credited the offensive and defensive consistency to veteran leadership.
"I think we're playing great baseball right now … We have a very old and experienced group and we've played in some championships, even when we were younger guys," Tellier said. "So having that experience and understanding, (knowing) the importance of scoring runs with two outs even, just the ability to make plays all the time and to help our pitchers keep their pitch count down is just a huge step in achieving the big goal."
Ultimate clutch swing from @tellier_adam to help Ball State ⚾️ rebound from disaster to take a 12-9 lead heading into the bottom of the 9th.
Cardinals 3 outs away from a MAC tournament title. pic.twitter.com/p49T9Jr2k8
— Gus Martin (@GusMartin_SP) May 27, 2023
In baseball, perhaps more than every other major American sport, the best team is always beatable. Ball State proved that by beating KSU twice in the postseason after allowing 54 runs over a three-game series the weekend before.
That instilled belief in the Cardinals that their best is good enough.
"We come to play, man. I don't know anything else in my bones, and I didn't raise any of these kids in this program that way," Maloney said. "They're all raised to believe that they can win, and so that's how we're going to approach this thing. We're going in it with the idea that we want to win this tournament."
Gus Martin is a sports reporter at The Star Press. Follow him on Twitter @GusMartin_SP, and contact him at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: Ball State baseball confident vs. Kentucky at NCAA Regionals