Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect a change in the schedule. Saturday's game has been cancelled so Ball State and Northern Illinois will now play a doubleheader Friday beginning at noon.
Baseball is a sport that can clear the mind — see ball, hit ball.
But this weekend, Ball State players have to balance the simplicity of a game with finals preparation as they head to DeKalb, Illinois, to take on Northern Illinois.
Senior centerfielder Matt Eppers, an entrepreneurial management major who was named Academic All-Mid-American Conference last year, said there's a different atmosphere before finals.
“I think it’s just a little bit more of studying on the bus, things like that," Eppers said. "Maybe guys doing things in-between practice or meals or on the bus or at the hotel that maybe they wouldn’t usually do, but they have to because of the time of year it is.”
Ball State statistics (MAC only, 15 games)
Batting average: .316
Home runs: 16
Northern Illinois statistics (MAC only, 12 games)
Batting average: .283
Home runs: 6
Head coach Rich Maloney said he tries to help his players by giving them more time to study. Wednesday, for example, the team lifted weights instead of holding a full practice.
“Prior to finals, during finals — that whole time is a very uncertain time with the baseball team just because there’s so much," Maloney said. "It’s kind of a wild card.”
Senior first baseman Caleb Stayton, a telecommunications major, said most of the stress can be eliminated with a little planning.
“Normally I just try to get everything done during the week, like the first three days, so I can enjoy the weekend. But kind of had a little bit more stuff going on during the week — I know last week at Buffalo, I tried to get some stuff done and wrote a couple papers on the bus. I don’t know yet what I’ll do this weekend, but I’ll probably end up writing something.”
And when something pops up, like a group project, Stayton said Maloney makes it easy to prioritize education.
“If we have something to do during practice, we just say, ‘Hey Coach, I have something to take care of,’ and he’s very understanding," Stayton said. "He makes it a lot less stressful than it could be.”
Last season, Stayton was named CoSIDA Academic All-American and Academic All-MAC. He said he has a few assignments coming up.
"I don’t know yet what I’ll do this weekend," Stayton said. "But I’ll probably end up writing something.”
Northern Illinois junior outfielder Roderick Bynum is on a five-game hitting streak and lead the Huskies with six doubles and nine steals. What (very) northern U.S. city is Bynum from?
Ball State bats vs. Northern Illinois' arms
The Cardinals (21-20, 8-7 MAC) have the best Mid-American Conference play with a .316 average in league games.
While the Huskies (12-27, 6-6 MAC) have a 5.13 ERA on the season, their pitching staff has brought something extra to MAC play, posting a 3.55 ERA.
“You’ve got to throw out their non-conference record," Maloney said. "Right now they’re playing really well."
Eppers is riding a 12-game hitting streak and is second on the team with a .338 batting average. He was 1-4 with a run and an RBI in Tuesday's extra-innings loss to Indiana at Victory Field. Nearly 6,000 fans were in attendance, and Eppers said the Cardinals need to bring the same energy to DeKalb, even if the surrounding atmosphere is more relaxed.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s nobody in the crowd or there’s 10,000 people," Eppers said. "You’ve got to bring it every day. And it may be a little bit easier to bring it when there’s 10,000 people cheering for you, but when there’s nobody there it kind of separates the really good teams from the mediocre teams.”
Ball State arms vs. Northern Illinois bats
Injured pitchers dot the Cardinals' roster, which could spell trouble against a Huskies team that's hit .283 since the beginning of MAC play.
“With [senior right-handed pitcher] BJ Butler being out and [junior righty Colin] Brockhouse pitching limited right now, that brings us much closer to the pack than separating us from the back," Maloney said.
Brockhouse (2-1, 2.29 ERA) is on a throwing program as he comes back from elbow tightness and isn't expected to throw more than three innings this weekend. Butler (4-4, 2.74 ERA) is out after an off-the-field accident.
“Butler fell from a roof and he broke a bone," Maloney said. "I don’t know the whole thing, so he’s out. We’re hoping he can come back for the tournament.”
Ball State's season ERA is 4.03, but in MAC games the injury-riddled staff posts a 5.36 ERA.
The good news, though, is that the Cardinals' pitching staff performed well against the Hoosiers without any single individual throwing more than 55 pitches.
Brockhouse threw 39 pitches in the first two innings, redshirt senior left-handed pitcher Kevin Marnon only needed 13 to get through the third, redshirt sophomore Evan Marquardt got through 3.1 innings on 36 pitches, and sophomore closer T.J. Baker tossed 53 pitches in the final 3.1 frames.
“The guy who got taxed a little bit more was T.J. Baker, and that was quite frankly due to the fact that we had an opportunity to win and we had so many fans there we were going to try to win that game," Maloney said. "He’ll still be able to pitch an inning on Friday in relief. … We used them so they’ll still be ready on the weekend.”
But regardless of who's on the mound, Ball State's pitching staff will have to contend with Northern Illinois's speed — the Huskies have a conference-best 19 steals in MAC games.
Ball State is 48-34-1 all-time against NIU, but the Cardinals and Huskies are 3-3 against each other in the last two seasons.
Bynum's hot bat hails from the (sometimes) cold city of Fairbanks, Alaska.
Ball State and NIU begin their series with a doubleheader 12:30 p.m. (11:30 p.m. Central) Friday, followed by a 1:05 p.m. game Sunday.