Flashes win with walk-off hit by a pitch against Northern Illinois

Richie Mulhall

Box Score

Two weeks ago, the Kent State baseball team (29-16, 12-6 Mid-American Conference) was the hottest team going in the MAC.

Starting with a victory against Buffalo and ending with a win in the first game of a three-game series with Bowling Green, the Flashes were riding a five-game winning streak and creeping up on Ball State for the overall lead in the MAC.

Two weeks later, Kent State is just trying to stay afloat more than anything else.

Two straight losses to Bowling Green, followed by a, disappointing loss to Youngstown State, have sent the Flashes spiraling into a rut out of which they could not seem to get out.

The way Kent State has played these past three games has led Flashes fans to wonder: What’s wrong with the Flashes?

It is not exactly an easily answered question, as Kent State head coach Jeff Duncan himself said this past week before practice that in the past three games, Kent State has found three different ways to lose, whether it’s the bullpen, hitting or defensive inconsistencies that cause the team’s demise.

These past few weeks, the Flashes have been unable to get away with anything. Unproductive at-bats, bad errors in judgment on the field and poor relief pitching performances have been recurring themes that have all come back to haunt Kent State in some way, shape or form.

Duncan said that his team’s current losing streak marks a pivotal moment in the season because it forces the team to bond together to get each other out of the hole at crucial time of the year.

This is the end of the regular season, the part of the season in which teams on the cusp need to buckle down and pick up some steam before it’s too late and teams out in front need to stand their ground and continue to fend off the competition.

Kent State was safe in the latter category going into Friday night’s game, still tied with Central Michigan for the second place overall in the MAC, but the last thing the Flashes want to do at this point in the season is go out with a losing record in May.

The Flashes looked to shed their three-game skid, and a win was much needed going into Friday night’s game against the Northern Illinois, an on-the-cusp team that falls into the first category of MAC teams mentioned earlier.

Despite the disparity of wins and losses between the two in-conference adversaries, Friday’s game home game at Schoonover Stadium was critical not just for Kent State, but for both teams, really.

And it sure wasn’t pretty, but the Flashes did just enough to get the job done Friday night, rallying back after falling behind 3-1 to top Northern Illinois (14-31-1, 8-11 MAC) 4-3.  

Kent State might have won the game, but the W did not come easily. The game was ugly from all angles as had three errors and Northern Illinois racked up four errors to combine for seven total errors in the ball game. With an eyesore statistic like that pertaining to both teams, either team is not going to play its best baseball, but a win is a win nonetheless.

Erroneous games like Friday night’s game in which either team can’t get out of its own way usually go to the team that finds a way to win, and despite the Flashes’ fielding errors and complete lack of hitting up until the seventh inning, they found that way to win with a little help from the most unlikely ally: the Huskies themselves.

“Any way you can win, find a way to win, and then they did that,” Duncan said of his team Friday.

After Northern Illinois established 3-1 lead, fueled by a tremendous starting pitching effort from  Anthony Andres, the Huskies gift-wrapped and delivered the final inning of the ball game to the Flashes.

Sophomore catcher Jeff Revesz led of the inning by turning an easy out into a two-bagger when a Huskies infielder threw the ball over the first baseman’s head. Gift number one.

After junior Sawyer Polen grounded out to advance Revesz and place him just 90 feet away from home plate, Northern Illinois intentionally walked freshman Curtis Olvey. Gift number two.

The Huskies accidentally walked redshirt senior Jon Wilson to load the bases and bring up arguably Kent State’s number one hitter in junior outfielder Alex Miklos to the plate.

Miklos was drilled by pitch in his at-bat to end the game. Gift number three. Poor defense and weak pitching — the gifts that kept on giving to the Flashes in the final inning of the game.

“Mik[los] did a good job, he didn’t move his feet, he did what he was supposed to do,” Duncan said. “He battled and held his ground. We can win in many ways, in many facets, and we just gotta get back into that rhythm of winning.”

Just as suddenly as Miklos was hit by the last pitch of the game, the Flashes took game one of the three-game series with an unexpected walk-off hit by a pitch, and the win could not come at a better time for Kent State, a team that has been craving a win since last weekend.

“This is a big win for this program,” Duncan said. “These guys are going through a lot in the last couple of weeks. Getting this win and getting a little but momentum going through the rest of this series is huge”

Long before Kent State’s walk-off finish in the ninth,  the game began with a battle on the mound, a pitching dual between Kent State’s ace starting pitcher Eric Lauer and Andres.

In the freshman’s last two starts, Lauer did not have his best stuff, but he looked like the old Eric Lauer Friday night.

He went six innings, allowing seven hits, two runs and two walks. He also had seven strikeouts en route to the no decision.

Lauer was replaced in the seventh inning and left the game with the loss because at the time, he did not have the run support or the defensive support.

“Lauer set the tone, he had a good quality start for us,” Duncan said. “He did a good job, gave up a couple of runs, but he was in the strike zone all day. Unfortunately we had a couple miscues on the defensive end.”

While Lauer was doing his thing, Andres was mowing down Kent State batters through the first six innings.

The first two times the Flashes batted around the lineup, Wilson and Miklos at the top of the order were 0-6. The Flashes were hitting a lot of long lazy pop-ups and not many line drives to Andres’ credit.

Kent State got on the board late in the fifth on a controversial, bang-bang play at the plate that led furious Northern Illinois head coach Ed Mathey to storm the field in protest of the call.

Other than the close call in the fifth, the Flashes did not generate much offense in the beginning of the game.

It was not until the seventh inning that Kent State’s bats began to simmer and finally got to Andres.

Andres fell off in the seventh and gave up two runs, allowing Kent State to bring the game back to even.

“I’m really proud of this team the way we battled today, especially the way we responded to them in the seventh, eighth and ninth inning,” Duncan said. “We made the adjustment [on Andres], we shrunk the strike zone in the seventh, eighth and ninth, and it really worked. “I think that was the difference in the game.”

Once Andres was taken out of the game without the win and Lauer got the no decision, it was a whole new ball game.

“We were patient [behind the plate] for the most part all game,” Duncan said. “But when I think we really established and felt like we had the strike zone, we got a little bit more patient, and it got us some better pitches to hit. And [Northern Illinois] gave us some free bases, too.”

The late-inning rally all began with Polen. In a rare occurrence, he came off the bench to pinch hit for freshman shortstop Zach Beckner. Polen, who was pulled early from Wednesday’s game against Youngstown State, did not start Friday night due to a minor injury he sustained Wednesday night.

According to Duncan, Polen got a little banged up the other night, spraining his MCL and bruising his knee, and Duncan said did not feel comfortable starting him.

When runners were at first and second in the bottom of the seventh inning, though, pinch hitting Polen dictated the situation, and despite his injury, Polen stepped up and delivered for his team in big ways in the seventh and ninth innings.

A shot into centerfield from Polen in the seventh scored sophomore third baseman Justin Wagler from second base to bring the Flashes within two — another liner in centerfield by Olvey one batter later would tie the game — and in the ninth inning, it was Polen’s clutch sacrifice bunt that moved Revesz over to third and eventually score the game-winning run.

“I’m really proud of Sawyer and they way he came off the bench and get that key hit, put down a key bunt, and he’s a huge leader on this team,” Duncan said of Polen.

Duncan said Polen’s RBI pinch hit and key bunt were the best at-bats Polen has had all season — and he wasn’t even warmed up yet.

 “I had about three seconds to warm up, but coach always talks about being ready on the bench just to come in and try to give the team the spark and just be ready to hit,” Polen said.

The spark Polen gave his team in the seventh, much like Friday night’ win in general, was a pick-me-up the team so desperately needed in not only just this particular game, but in moving forward toward season’s finish line as well.

“[This win] is a confidence booster, it’s something just to kind of get the ball rolling, clean up some of the mistakes we’ve made last week and this week, so we’ll take whatever momentum we have now into [Saturday],” Polen said.

Friday night’s chance win comes at a crucial time in Kent State’s season because the team now in sole possession of second place overall in the MAC after Central Michigan, which previously shared the second-place slot with the Flashes, lost earlier that day.

The Flashes also gained a game on Ball State, which now only have 1.5 game lead on the Flashes.

Kent State and Northern Illinois face off again Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.

Contact Richie Mulhall at [email protected].