Baseball wrap-up: Flashes fall short in MAC tournament

Junior infielder Derek Toadvine slides to second base against Central Michigan on May 22, 2013. Kent beat Central Michigan 15-8 but was eliminated from the Mid-American Conference Tournament on May 25 after falling 4-1 to Ball State. Photo by Matt Hafley.

Tim Dorst

In 2012, the Kent State baseball team swept through the Mid-American Conference tournament and advanced to the College World Series for the first time in program history. While they only won one game when they arrived there, the Flashes eliminated the University of Florida Gators, the No. 1 team in the nation at the time, and finished among the top five teams.

The 2013 Flashes came into this year’s conference tournament, which took place May 22 to 26 at All-Pro Freight Stadium in Avon, Ohio, hoping to duplicate the success they achieved last season. Unfortunately for them, this season did not yield the same results that they saw a year ago.

The team attempted to claim its fifth consecutive conference tournament title but was unsuccessful following two losses to the Ball State Cardinals, abruptly ending the Flashes’ season and keeping them out of further postseason play.

Head coach Scott Stricklin said there were high expectations for his team coming into this year’s tournament, creating pressure that may have been too steep for the players to overcome.

“The expectations that were on this team, it’s a heavy load to carry around,” Stricklin said. “For whatever reason, we just came up a little short.”

The Flashes (36-23) began their tournament run on May 22 looking as sharp as they had all season long. They defeated the Central Michigan Chippewas 15-8 in the opening round to advance to the winner’s bracket for the second day of the tournament.

Kent State jumped ahead early in the evening, scoring nine of their 15 runs in the first two innings. Stricklin said it felt good to see the Flashes’ offense explode so early in the tournament.

“We haven’t scored 15 runs in a long time,” Stricklin said. “We had some great at-bats today and really put pressure on [the Chippewas]. That’s what we’re trying to do early on, just trying to score as many runs as we can and save our bullpen a little.”

While six different players finished the game with multiple hits, the night seemingly belonged to Justin Wagler, freshman third baseman. Starting in place of injured freshman Zarley Zalewski, Wagler made his first tournament game a memorable one, going 3-for-4 with five RBIs and two runs scored.

Wagler capped off his night with a two-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning, his second of the season and first of the game for the Flashes.

“I thought I probably needed to step my game up,” Wagler said. “[Zalewski] was a big part of the lineup, and not having him would’ve set us back. I’m happy I could do my part and help out. I saw a lot of off-speed pitches that were left up in the zone. I just tried to stay through it, and it worked out.”

Junior pitcher Taylor Williams had a stellar outing for Kent State, as he kept Central Michigan in check for his 10th win of the season. Williams pitched six innings, allowed three runs on seven hits and recorded a game-high 10 strikeouts.

Inclement weather forced the Flashes’ second-round game to be postponed until May 24, and the layoff did not help them as they fell to the Cardinals 3-1 for their first loss of the tournament.

A pair of fielding mistakes caused Kent State to fall behind early in the game. In the top of the second inning, Ball State’s first two batters reached on errors by Wagler and sophomore shortstop Sawyer Polen. Cardinals starting pitcher T.J. Weir, batting at the No. 7 spot, reached base on a fielder’s choice and drove in his team’s first run of the game.

Kent State Baseball Spring Highlights

  • The Flashes finished the regular season on a seven-game winning streak.
  • The team had an overall record of 36-23 and a conference record of 20-7.
  • George Roberts led the team in batting average with .358, while Sawyer Polen led in hits with 73.
  • The Flashes clinched the Mid-American Conference regular season title after completing a sweep of the Akron Zips on May 18.
  • The team went 2-2 at the MAC Tournament.
  • Five players were selected in the 2013 Major League Baseball Draft. Junior Tyler Skulina was selected highest among the players at 108th overall.
  • Other players drafted included Taylor Williams, Eric Dorsch, Derek Toadvine and George Roberts.

Weir did his part on the pitching mound to keep the Cardinals in the lead while keeping Kent State hitters off balance for much of the game. The right-hander finished with a complete game, giving up just one run on seven hits and striking out seven.

Kent State avoided elimination later in the day with a 7-0 shutout of the Miami Redhawks that kept the hope of a championship repeat alive. Runs came much easier for the Flashes in this game, as they got off to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning.

Junior second baseman Derek Toadvine had one of his best performances of the season against the Redhawks, going 3-for-4 with three runs scored and three stolen bases. Toadvine brought his team-leading stolen base total to 29.

“[Toadvine] is the key to our offense,” Stricklin said. “When he gets on base, he puts a lot of pressure on people. That’s how the game started. He was hit by a pitch, stole a base and scored a run. He is definitely key.”

Stricklin said he thought his team had good at-bats against Miami, especially during the five-run third inning that extended their lead to six runs.

“We even made some loud outs. It was encouraging to see us hit like that. It’s frustrating when you watched it in the morning not be there and then all of a sudden it’s there, but that’s just how baseball is. We’ve just got to put that behind us. You can’t hit the rewind button.”

When his team needed it the most, senior pitcher Casey Wilson put together one of the best outings of his career. Wilson recorded his first complete game shutout of the season, striking out three Redhawks batters and walking only one.

Wilson knew going into the game that the Flashes needed a strong performance from him on the mound, and he said we was prepared for it.

“Coach Stricklin said he needed someone to step up to save our bullpen and get through the game,” Wilson said. “Since we lost that first game it was a tough one. But we needed someone to step up, and I guess it was me.”

Despite their win to avoid being eliminated, the Flashes’ season ended the next day with a 4-1 loss to the Cardinals.

Kent State took a 1-0 lead over the Cardinals in the top of the fourth inning on an RBI single by junior right fielder T.J. Sutton that drove in senior first baseman George Roberts. Ball State came back to tie the game in the bottom half of the fifth inning and scored two more runs in the bottom of the sixth to take a 3-1 lead.

Freshman right-handed pitcher Nick Jensen-Clagg had a solid performance, keeping the Cardinals from putting the game out of reach and giving his team the opportunity to take control of the game. The Flashes just could not score runs when they needed to.

Kent State’s four seniors, George Roberts, Evan Campbell, Casey Wilson and Jason Bagoly, played their last game with Kent State, and the ending of their college careers was not quite what they had expected. Despite the disappointing loss, Stricklin said he still feels a high level of pride for his players and for the way they continued to compete hard in the face of elimination.

“I’m proud of every single member on this team, especially our four seniors,” Stricklin said. “They got us to this point, and we had a chance up until the last hitter to win the game.”

Contact Tim Dorst at [email protected].