MAC Tournament Notebook: Day 1

May 27, 2010

Big blasts, stellar pitching, favorites rolling, and upsets; opening day had it all correspondent Chris Webb will be checking-in from the MAC and Big Ten Tournaments this week.  Here are some of his thoughts from day one of the MAC Tournament.

Chillicothe, OH– We wondered yesterday what the Mid-American Conference could do for an encore in the post-season tournament after an incredible regular season. For the 1,537 in attendance throughout the day at VA Memorial Stadium in Chillicothe, the answer was a little of everything. From unexpected heroes to stars shining with back-and-forth affairs to blowouts, each of the four games had a different element that none other had. As we take a look at the day’s action, you’ll see MAC baseball delivers in every way.

Falcon Stars Return to Form, Steal Show from Cardinals

Boston Red Sox GM Theo Epstein was the biggest name in attendance at the MAC Tournament Wednesday.

The 2010 MAC Tournament kicked off in grand form. Not only were two great teams who were separated by just one game squaring off, the game which started bright and early at 9 AM was taken in by a special visitor. In many circles Ball State Jr. Kolbrin Vitek is the conference’s number one prospect and expected first round draft pick. That sentiment was cemented today in a big way.  Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Boston Red Sox Theo Epstein was on hand to take in the Bowling Green-Ball State contest to get a close and personal look on the MAC Player of the Year. While Vitek had a solid game going 1-for-3 with a walk, it would be a 2009 draft pick that led his team to victory.

A 45th round selection by the Kansas City Royals in the 2009 MLB Draft, Derek Spencer turned away the professional game for one final season at Bowling Green. As the Falcons look to advance to their first NCAA Regional since 1999, Spencer’s big game helped the Falcons take a step towards that go. The third baseman went 2-for-4 with a bases loaded, bases clearing double in the top of the 3rd inning in part of a four-run Falcon inning for the game’s first runs. With the support of his teammates, Jr. Brennan Smith showed the form that made him the 2009 MAC Pitcher of the Year striking out six over 6.2 innings. As Smith allowed four runs off seven hits and three walks, catcher Ryan Schlater’s RBI single in the fourth inning proved to be the game-winning hit, with Schlater added a solo home run in the ninth for insurance.

The Cardinals would not go down easily though as two runs were plated in the bottom of the fifth inning  by way of a Blake Beemer two-RBI triple. Two much were tacked on two innings later as T.J Baumet connected on his seventh home run of the year to make it a one-run game before Schlater’s blast sealed it. Atop of the Ball State batting order Baumet and Beemer combined to go 3-for-9 with a run and four RBI, Ian Nielsen added a multi-hit game in a 2-for-3 effort.

While Smith received the win to move to 6-4 on the year, Patrick O’Brien collected his 5th save with a perfect ninth inning. Perci Garner received the loss for Ball State after seven innings of work in which he allowed five runs off six hits while striking out seven Falcons against three walks.

Suschak Chucks a Gem

The game between Miami and Toledo didn’t open exactly as scripted for Toledo starting pitcher Matt Suschak. The

Toledo's Matt Suschak (Toledo photo)

Miami do-it-all centerfielder Adam Eaton had touched Suschak for a leadoff triple to put the 6th-seed RedHawks 90 feet from an early run. That final 90 feet proved to be the toughest as Suschak’s teammates came to his aid. As Jon Edgington flew out to Rocket centerfielder Jared Hoying, Hoying’s on target throw to backstop Aaron Dudley nailed the speedy Eaton, preventing the run from scoring allowing Suschak to leave the inning unscathed.

After getting out of the first inning jam, Suschak would walk another tight-rope in the second. A lead off double by Ryan Kaup, an infield single by Nate Bowles, and then a walk to Jordan Jankowski would load the bases for the RedHawks. With his back to the wall yet again Suschak would get out of the sticky situation with minimum harm. Brad Gschwind’s fielder’s choice plated one run before Suschak struck out the final two batters to end the inning. With their pitcher coming through in the clutch twice in the game’s opening two innings, the Rocket backs provided their ace with all of the support needed to cruise to victory in one inning.

The bottom of the Toledo third started with a Chris Dudics single up the middle to provided a baserunner for Tim Krofcheck to bring home on his 8th home run of the year. As Dan Sherwood’s single scored Joe Corfman to give Toledo three third inning runs, with the lead Suschak took over.

Over his last 10 outs, Suschak did not allow a RedHawk hit before Kyle Shaw relieved him after Gschwind singled with one down in the seventh. Shaw would pick up where Suschak left off, keeping Miami hitless over the final 2.2 innings, striking out two to secure the win for Toledo. With single runs in the fourth and fifth combined with a pair in the eighth the Rockets advanced in the winners bracket by way of the 7-1 win.

The duo of Suschak and Shaw held Miami to their one run off five hits while striking out eight. Mac Thoreson received the loss after surrendering five runs off 11 hits in 4.1 innings of action.

Eagles Soars by Flashes

EMU first baseman Todd Graves hit a first inning grand slam Wednesday. (EMU photo)

Though 5th seed Bowling Green did knock off  4th seed Ball State, the day’s true upset came in way of Eastern Michigan taking down Kent State 12-4. Perhaps more shocking than the 7th seed romping the 2nd seed was the player of two unheralded Eastern Michigan players.

Going into tournament player Eagle second baseman Aaron Crooks would be one of the least-likeliest players to bring the crowd at VA Memorial Stadium to its feet. In taking away nothing from the abilities of Crooks, the senior had just 11 RBI with a batting average near .280, and no home runs. Perhaps Crooks is a testament to great things coming when least expected. It would be Crooks and not Vitek or Kent State’s Anthony Gallas, or Ohio’s dynamic duo of Gauntlett Eldemire and Robert Maddox who blasted two home runs on the day, in a four-hit, four-RBI effort. A career day for Crooks put the Eagles well on their way to victory, yet his day was out-shined by corner-infield counterpart Todd Graves who would match Crooks’ effort with a two home run day of his own as the two put Eastern Michigan well on their way to victory.

Not taking long to ignite the aerial attack, with two outs and the bases loaded, Graves third home run of the year would be a grand slam off Kent State starter Kyle Hallock to give the designated visitors a quick 4-0 lead. Just two innings later Graves would provide starter Kendall Lewis all of the runs he would need in jacking his second homer of the day, a two-run shot to pout the Eagles ahead for good at 6-1. As Graves would finish the game 3-for-5 with six RBI and a pair of runs scored after dominating the opening half of the game, doubling his season home run total in the process from two to four, the second half of the game belonged to Crooks.

With a two-out solo home run in the fourth, and an one-out solo shot in the seventh, Crooks capped his career day with a two-run single in the ninth to provide the Eagles with the final two runs of their strong offensive day. Andrew Marshall and Zack Leonard joined Graves and Crooks with Eagles with multi-hit games as both tallied two hits in two and four at-bats respectively. Two Flashes tallied multi-hit games led by Travis Shaw who went a perfect 4-for-4 with a walk, RBI and run scored. Ben Klafczynski went 2-for-4 with a pair of RBI.

Kendall Lewis recorded his seventh win against four losses for 2010 with seven solid innings. Lewis scattered 10 hits in allowing four runs while walking three and striking out four. Hallock, now 6-5, received the loss lasting just three innings in which he gave up six runs off six hits.

Chippewas Outlast Bobcats

The day’s final game is one that seemed to have no ended. Taking more than a half hour longer to complete than the next closest game with a runtime of three hours and 11 minutes, a lot occurred in the night cap, a lot being 15 hits, and 22 runs.

The Chippewas became the second team to score four runs in the opening inning, joining Wolverine State partner Eastern Michigan, as CMU raced out to a 4-0 lead. In the inning five batters singled, a passed ball, and hit by pitched allowed four runs to cross as every player stepped to the plate in the opening inning. The Bobcats cut into the lead with a run in the second, before Central Michigan countered with a run to extend the lead back to four. However in this game no lead seemed safe until the final out.

Again Ohio would answer as singles by Gauntlett Eldemire and Bryan Barnes preceded a Robert Maddox walk to load the bases. After a Tyler Backstrom RBI-fielder’s choice, and Kris McDonough fielder choice brought CMU within an out of ending the inning, a Seth Streich three-run home run made it a brand new game, knotting the action at 5-5 after three. In the fourth Ohio would take the lead by a run, but it could have been much more. The Bobcats loaded the bases before Barnes rolled over into a double-play that did score a run, but halt any mounting Bobcat momentum. A batter later Maddox struck out to end the inning.

Trailing for the first time Central Michigan responded in the home-half of the inning. Not only did they respond, the resounding effort they did so put the game away halfway home. Outs sandwiched a Jared Teas double to put Central Michigan in a position to strand the tying run in scoring position. With a little two-out lightning, Teas would come home, as did seven other Chippewas in the inning. Back-to-back singles would be followed by back-to-back walks, a reached by error, hit by pitch, and another walk would load the bases for CMU as Bobcat pitching self-destructed. After starting the rally, Teas would provide one last bang in the rally with a bases loaded triple scoring the final three runs of the offensive explosion. In the inning CMU tallied eight runs off four hits and one error to lead 13-6 after four.

The final five innings would yield just three runs, all being added to Ohio’s side of the scoreboard to close of the fourth and final game of day one. The beneficiary of the frantic and fantastic fourth was MAC Freshman of the Year Diertich Enns who moved to 7-0 with the win. Enns relieve started Jess Hernandez, the MAC Pitcher of the Year, who lasted just four innings. Enns pitched three innings allowing two runs off a pair of hits while striking out five, walking three. Receiving the loss and falling to 3-5 on the season was Jason Moulton who last 3.2 innings in his latest start, giving up 12 Chippewa runs, seven earned, off nine hits, while striking out seven against four walks.

The Days Best:

Hitter- Todd Graves, Eastern Michigan: 3-for-5, two runs, six RBI, two HR

Pitcher- Matt Suschak, Toledo: 6.1 IP, five hits, one run, four walks, six strikeouts

Game Changing Moment- Derek Spencer, Bowling Green: three-run third inning double to break a scoreless game.

Inning- Central Michigan’s eight-run fourth inning. Jared Teas collected a double, triple, and three RBI in the frame.

Team- It’s hard not to be impressed by Eastern Michigan. Taking down the reigning tournament champions in grand form is big. Doing it as the 7th seed is huge.

Three Up

Offense: With Toledo racking up 15 hits, Eastern Michigan 14, Ohio 13, and Central Michigan 12, it is safe to say if you’re offense shows up in Chillicothe, you’re on your way to victory. With all eight team’s throwing their ace on day one, to see these four teams put up big numbers is impressive.

The Little Guy: It’s hard not to feel great for what the Eagle duo of Graves and Crooks did today. While the top five teams were in a dogfight for the regular season crown, these two and Eastern Michigan show the MAC is deep, and any team is capable of winning, while any player is capable of stepping up.

The Crowd: Those who support the team and the city of Chillicothe deserve a round of applause for seeing more than 1,500 fans come through the turntable in watching the day’s four games. It’s hard not to see the MAC continue it’s growth with support like that.

Three Down:

The Aces: While Suschak delivered with Garner and Smith performing well, the day was really void of team’s number one pitchers taking command as offense was in full throttle for most of the day.

The Scouts: On the day of the little guy, the scouts who came out to see the biggest names have to feel a bit disappointed. While they didn’t have bad games, the projected high draft picks in Vitek, Garner, and Eldemire had so-so outings, not showing their A games.

The Weather:  I’m a fan of summer, don’t get me wrong, but man was the sun shining with no mercy today. The playing surface at VA Memorial Stadium provides little mercy for the players, so on a day in the upper 80s when it was a struggle to stay cool, imagine the players on the field in uniform. I guess we can give the pitchers some slack.

Looking Ahead

The MAC truly could not have asked for more on the opening day of tournament play. If you’re a fan of offense you were in for a treat. If you’re a purist and prefer a low-scoring see-saw affair, Ball State and Bowling Green clawed and fought for each run while Suschak pitched a whale of a game. Players with little fanfare in Graves and Crooks delivered in big ways, while established stars like Spencer, and Maddox lived up to their billing. With a robust crowd of 1,500+ from parents and friends to handfuls of scouts and high-profile executives, it would be hard-pressed if everyone in attendance did not find something to enjoy.

As is the nature of a tournament, there can only be one winner. Thursday begins the process of elimination as the field begins to dwindle from eight to ultimately one. East Division rivals Kent State and Miami kick off day two with an elimination game bright and early at 9 AM. Miami defeat Kent State two games to one in the season’s series three weeks ago in Oxford. Will Miami continue their winning ways against the Flashes or will the reigning tournament champs show their experience and mettle? The second elimination game will pit two of the MAC’s brightest stars against each other as Vitek and Eldemire look to extend their seasons in what could be the final game for one of the two as the draft looms. After having modest days at the plate, expect both to come up big on Thursday in an effort to extend their team’s run, as scouts prepare for one last look at one of the two.

The winner’s bracket will have a MAC-West taste as Toledo faces Eastern Michigan in an all West Division showdown, while division and overall conference champion Central Michigan doing battle against Bowling Green. Crooks and Graves will not sneak up on Toledo as MAC Coach of the Year Cory Mee will have his Rockets prepared for a familiar foe. The MAC’s best team in the Chippewas will try to turn away the conference’s hottest team in the Falcons, with the winning having to feel the tournament title is theirs for the taking.

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