MAC competition resumes as Flashes baseball hosts Buffalo

Sophomore infielder Justin Wagler (right) slides into third base at Wednesday’s baseball game against University of Pittsburgh, April 16, 2014. Kent State won the game, 4-1.

Richie Mulhall

Box Score

After a 4-1 victory against visiting Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the Kent State baseball team (23-12, 9-3 Mid-American Conference) is now roughly halfway through its long, 10-game April homestand.

The Flashes improved their record to 23-12 Wednesday night with a 4-1 victory over the Panthers.

First-year Kent State Coach Jeff Duncan said in a postgame interview with that “it was a good win for us today. It was a solid performance by everybody.”

The most impressive outing of the night, though, had to be bestowed upon redshirt-junior starting pitcher Michael Clark.

Clark (1.84, 2-1 ERA), who started the season coming out of the bullpen for the Flashes, allowed one run off of two hits in his ninth appearance but only his fourth start of the season.

He surrendered the two hits and run early in the first inning, but he, along with three other Kent State starters who came in the game after Clark in relief, did not allow Pittsburgh to generate any offense and held their opponent scoreless for the remainder of the game.

Clark went five innings with three strikeouts in his second win this season.

He probably did not go longer because he had five walks and his pitch count was at 76 after only five innings on the hill.

It did not matter that Clark had to sit down in the sixth, though, because three of Kent State’s best relievers had his back.

Junior pitcher John Birkbeck (1-0, 3.79 ERA) got the first call to come into the game. He only pitched one inning, but he made the most of it.

He sat down the first two batters looking and struck out the side with an inning-ending K in the sixth. Freshman pitcher Andy Ravel (2-1, 4.37 ERA) followed Birkbeck with 2.2 innings of work with one walk and three strikeouts.

“Ravel’s been really good,” Duncan said. “He’s a freshman right now, I can see him being a starter and [Birkbeck], I can see him being a starter as well. He’s really progressed well.”

Redshirt-junior pitcher John Fasola (1-0, 3.71 ERA) was the final Kent State pitcher to come into the game, and he capped Kent State’s near-spotless overall pitching performance in the perfect way with a game-ending, statement-sending strikeout.

Thanks to Kent State’s pitching staff, the offense did not need to be as hot as it’s been in recent weeks, but it was still able to produce four runs on seven hits.

Four runs is nowhere close to the 13 runs Kent State scored on Miami last Saturday or the 18 runs the Flashes put up against Ohio on April 6, but it was enough for the W.

Duncan said it’s a long season, and the team is not always going to post crazy numbers like it has been doing.

“The hitting goes in and out just like any other offense, but it’s a good offense,” Duncan said. “I think we feel really comfortable with our lineup right now, but they’ve got a challenge in front of them with three quality starters.”

The Flashes will renew a one-sided rivalry with a Buffalo team that has been virtually no match for Kent State in the past.

The Flashes have definitely had an overwhelming advantage against the Bulls (16-12, 7-4 MAC) in terms of record. Lifetime, they are 40-5 against their MAC opponent, and since the two teams began facing each other back in 2001, Kent State has swept the Bulls in nine seasons.

Before last season, the only other series Buffalo won was in 2009 when the team took two out of three at home against the visiting Flashes.

The Flashes have the Bulls’ number, and if Kent State’s landslide history with this longtime MAC opponent is an indicator of anything, it’s safe to assume that the Flashes will have a good chance to boost its record in the MAC by three games, pending a sweep.

But Duncan said his team cannot just rely on history alone to defeat the Bulls. After all, Buffalo swept Kent State in three straight games last season, something Duncan does not intend to take lightly.

“I think you can throw that [lifetime record statistic] out the door; they swept us last year at their place,” Duncan said. “I think they’re a much better program and they’re playing good baseball.”

As Duncan said, Buffalo is not the same team it has been in the past. The team just recently completed a weekend sweep of Western Michigan, maintains an above .500 record and has a stellar starting pitching rotation to boot.

Duncan said he believes his three weekend starting pitchers will battle pitch-for-pitch and go toe-for-toe with Buffalo’s starting lineup in what he thinks will be “a good series.”

“Their three starters are really pitching well,” Duncan said. “I think they match up on the mound with our starters, so we’re just gonna have to have a good approach, force pressure on the defense.”

Two of Buffalo’s starters hold ERAs below 2.00, and the third starter, who will face off against Kent State ace and freshman phenom Eric Lauer (7-1, 1.64 ERA) Friday, has an ERA just below 4.00.

Duncan always feels comfortable giving Lauer the nod to start a weekend series on Friday, and he said having sophomore pitcher Nick Jensen-Clagg (3-1, 4.17 ERA) and junior pitcher Brian Clark (3-6, 4.35 ERA) behind Lauer makes the rotation just that much better.

“It’s good as a head coach to know who your Friday, Saturday, Sunday guys are now,” Duncan said. “They’ve pretty much solidified that rotation.”

With hot bats and lights-out pitching, Kent State appears to be the total package, but the Flashes have had their sporadic bouts with poor defense this season.

And just as Duncan has said before previous games, “The biggest thing for us is to solidify the defense and play good fundamental defense. Our pitching and hitting will be there on a daily basis.”

Friday’s game is slated to begin at 6 p.m. Saturday’s game will also start at 6 p.m., and the Easter Sunday series finale will begin at 1 p.m.

Contact Richie Mulhall at [email protected].