Baseball hosts Huskies in weekend series

Josh Johnston

Call it clutch hitting or a staunch bullpen, but lately the Kent State baseball team knows how to win the nailbiter games.

Since last Friday, the Flashes’ three wins have all come by one run – and always in the seventh inning or later.

The close wins have pushed Kent State (18-6, 4-1 Mid-American Conference) to a 10-2 record since the team opened the season 8-4. Starting this afternoon, the Flashes will look to continue that success as they open a three-game series with Northern Illinois at Schoonover Stadium.

“We’ve done a good job in close games of getting that big hit, getting that bunt down and doing what we need to get done,” Kent State head coach Scott Stricklin said. “But more than anything, in order to win close games you need to have pitching and defense, and that’s what we’ve had.”

Relief pitchers have led the way for the Flashes in the last two games. Shutdown pitching by freshman Andrew Chafin on Tuesday and a quintet of relievers Wednesday allowed Kent State to win over Malone and Penn State.

Chafin picked up a win over Malone by throwing three scoreless innings in Kent State’s 3-2 extra-innings win. The Flashes’ bullpen limited Penn State to four hits in the final six innings Wednesday to set up the 4-3 win. The Nittany Lions’ offense averaged more than seven runs a game coming into the contest.

“Our bullpen could be our greatest strength,” Stricklin said. “When we take the starter out of the game, we’re not going down in quality or level of talent, and that’s a rare thing for college baseball.”

Kent State has used its bullpen to pick up the slack from its offense. After the Flashes needed a walk-off single by freshman third baseman Travis Shaw to beat Malone, Stricklin expressed his concern for his team’s consistency at the plate.

“(We’re) aggressive when we need to be defensive and defensive when we need to be aggressive. It’s completely backwards right now,” Stricklin said Tuesday. “Guys really look confused at the plate.”

The Flashes’ offense seemingly improved overnight, as Kent State’s batters gave a better performance in Wednesday’s game. Stricklin said while the Flashes only had eight hits, they looked better at the plate.

“We didn’t get a lot of hits (and) we didn’t score a lot of runs, but it wasn’t because we didn’t swing the bats well,” he said. “In the first three innings, we hit six or seven balls the hardest you could hit them right at (Penn State). In baseball sometimes that happens.”

Northern Illinois (11-14, 4-1 MAC) enters this weekend’s series having won seven of its last nine games, including a 5-3 win over UW-Milwaukee on Wednesday. In the MAC West, the Huskies sit a half-game behind Toledo for first place.

Junior Chuck Lukanen (3-3, 3.47 ERA) will start on the mound for Northern Illinois this afternoon. In his last start, the lefty struck out five and allowed 10 hits and three earned runs to pick up a win over Bowling Green.

Countering for Kent State will be junior right-hander Brad Stillings (3-0, 3.45 ERA). Stillings surrendered five earned runs in four innings in a 10-9 win against Ball State last weekend. Coming into today, he sits fifth in the MAC with 32 strikeouts.

The Flashes and Huskies begin their three-game series at 3 p.m. today. Tomorrow’s game and the series finale Sunday both begin at 1 p.m.

Contact sports reporter Josh Johnston at [email protected].