OXFORD, OH- Most teams would struggle after losing their Friday night starter two weeks into the season. Not only does that mean you’ve lost what is typically the best starting pitcher on the roster, but it also means that everyone else on the staff has to slide down a spot, which hurts your depth.
Miami (25-15, 11-7) was in that position after the second weekend of the season, when Nick Ernst went down with a torn UCL. That was after, mind you, Ernst began his season by throwing six innings against Arizona State, giving up just four hits and one run with no walks and six strikeouts in a 4-2 win that gave the Redhawks their first opening day win since 2007.
With the way Ernst pitched in that Arizona State game, it’s easy for the Redhawks faithful to dream on a potential rotation of he and the two stalwart weekend starters, Spencer Mraz (4-2, 2.92 ERA, .193 OBA) and Zach Spears (3-3, 3.43 ERA, 76 K in 65.2 IP), who have both been solid this season. Thanks to the emergence of Gus Graham as a third option in the rotation, however, production hasn’t been compromised the way you might have assumed.
In fact, on Sunday, in a 4-2 win over Ohio, clinching the series for the Redhawks, Graham pitched more like an established Friday guy than a Sunday guy who was inserted into the rotation partway through the season.
He threw a complete game, giving up three hits and two runs with no walks and a career-high 11 strikeouts, and for a period of time between a solo home run from Ohio’s Rudy Rott with one out in the first inning, and a check-swing infield single by Dan McCauley in the eighth inning, he retired 20 Bobcat hitters in a row. The homer from Rott, in fact, served as something of a catalyst for Graham’s outstanding outing.
“After that (home run), I realized that I needed to settle down,” Graham said. “I was getting behind on batters. I realized that I can’t be doing this for the whole game and expect to keep us in the game. It was right after that that I re-engaged and came back into the game.”
That performance came one week after Graham threw a complete game against Northern Illinois, giving up five hits and one run with seven strikeouts in a 5-1 win that salvaged a game in what is the only series loss of the MAC schedule so far for the Redhawks.
On the season, he’s now 4-0 with a 3.54 ERA across 12 appearances, five of which have been starts. In 56 innings of work, he’s struck out 43, walked 16, and held opponents to a .235 batting average. Those are good numbers for a Sunday starter under any circumstances, but they’re even better when you consider that this isn’t a role he was expected to have at this point of the season.
It would be hard for him not to have some fun with the way he has been throwing the ball of late, but Graham made it clear after the game Sunday that he’s doing what he can to step back and appreciate these opportunities in his final year of college baseball.
“The last two weeks, my location has been really good and I’ve just come after the batters,” Graham said. “It’s been fun. It’s my senior year, I’m going to really enjoy it.”
It’s enough to do this type of thing and step into a bigger role during the season once, but this isn’t Graham’s first proverbial rodeo in this regard. He did this exact same thing way back in 2015 as a freshman. He began the season in the bullpen and appeared in seven games before being moved up to the weekend rotation, where he finished the season and helped lead the team to victories over Akron, Toledo, and Ohio. He also got tough-luck losses in games where he started and pitched well against Kent State and Eastern Michigan, and he ended the season with a solid 4.14 ERA in 45.2 innings.
Since then, he’s done a little bit of everything in his career. As a sophomore, he was in the rotation for the bulk of the season, going 4-4 with a 4.31 ERA in 64.2 innings. Then, as a junior, he was a dependable arm out of the bullpen on the way to putting up a 3.94 ERA in 29.2 innings. For Miami head coach Danny Hayden, the key to Graham’s ability to bounce around and succeed in different roles is as much between the ears as it is what he shows between the white lines.
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders,” Hayden said. “He’s always flexible with his role. There’s been times where we felt like it was best for him to help us out of the bullpen. There’s been times where it’s been best for him to help us starting games on Tuesday, and then even starting his freshman year, there’s been times for him to help us out on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday starting games. Whenever we give him the ball, he’s embraced the opportunity and embraced that role. Sometimes it’s changed on him pretty quick, but he’s always done a good job being flexible with us figuring out the right role for him. We’re lucky to have him.”
Kent State (28-12, 13-5)
The Golden Flashes bounced back from a series loss at home to Ohio last weekend with a clean sweep of Toledo on the road, continuing their run as the undisputed class of the MAC.
As it always is with this team, thanks in large part to longtime pitching coach Mike Birkbeck, getting it done on the mound is this team’s calling card. In particular, Joey Murray has been an absolute horse in 2018. On Friday, he threw 7.1 innings, giving up one hit and no runs with five walks and eight strikeouts. On the season, he’s now 7-1 with a 1.12 ERA, a 103/25 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .143 opponent batting average in 72.1 innings. He’s also only given up eight extra-base hits this year, none of which are home runs.
Assuming the pecking story stays relatively similar throughout the season, a series with second-place Miami (which is currently tied with Central Michigan) over the last weekend of the season looms large.
Central Michigan (19-23-1, 11-7)
CMU got back on track in the MAC with a series sweep of Bowling Green over the weekend, and for that, they have their bullpen to thank, as they got outstanding work from that group at different points during all three games.
On Friday, after starter Pat Leatherman lasted just 3.2 innings, Jack Collins came on and threw 4.1 scoreless and Brandon Reed threw a scoreless ninth to close out an 8-4 win. On Saturday, after a solid start from Michael Brettell, Reed came back and threw the final three innings, allowing just two hits and no runs, to close out a 4-3 win. And on Sunday, on a heavy bullpen day for both teams, Colton Bradley came on and threw the final 4.2 innings, which allowed CMU to come back from 6-2 down to capture a 9-6 victory.
For Reed, this was just another weekend at the office, as he’s been as steady as they come for the Chippewas this season. He’s got a 2.29 ERA, a 27/9 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .169 opponent batting average in 19.2 innings of work in relief this season.
Ball State (22-20, 10-8)
The Cardinals swept their series with Northern Illinois this past weekend, one weekend after the Huskies handed Miami their only series loss in MAC play this season.
Senior Colin Brockhouse continues to build on what is his best season in a Ball State uniform with a huge weekend. In the three games, he went 7-for-14 with three doubles, a triple, and four RBI. On the season, he’s up to .279/.369/.461 with ten doubles, six homers, and 32 RBI, all of which are career highs.
The Cardinals also got outstanding starting pitching all weekend, highlighted by a gem on Saturday from Drey Jameson, who threw eight shutout innings, giving up just two hits with no walks and eight strikeouts. Jameson has been BSU’s most effective starter this season, as he has a 5-0 record with a 3.71 ERA. In 53.1 innings, he has a 70/25 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .204 opponent batting average.
Western Michigan (18-18, 8-8)
Western Michigan evened their MAC record by winning two out of three this past weekend against in-state rival Eastern Michigan.
Connor Smith has made the WMU offense go in a lot of ways this season, and that was no different in the series opener on Friday. The junior went 4-for-5 with a double, a triple, and three runs scored in the 6-4 Broncos victory. Nic Laio was untouchable on the mound for that one as well, throwing 7.2 shutout innings, giving up two hits and one walk with ten strikeouts.
In the Sunday finale, a 12-5 WMU win, Jacob Piechota continued to show that he and Laio are one of the best starting pitching duos in the conference, as he tossed 6.1 innings, giving up four hits and one run with one walk and five strikeouts. For the entire year, Laio is 3-3 with a 2.98 ERA and a .215 opponent batting average in 68.1 innings, while Piechota has a tough-luck 3-5 record with a 2.95 ERA and a 60/16 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 61 innings.
Eastern Michigan (16-24, 9-9)
EMU may have lost the series to WMU this past weekend, but they did manage to grab one win on the shoulders of starting pitcher Luke DeVenny in the middle game of the set. In the 6-1 win, he threw seven innings, giving up five hits and one run with no walks and seven strikeouts, continuing his outstanding season for the Eagles. The team’s most effective starting pitcher to this point of the season, DeVenny is 5-1 with a 2.64 ERA.
Currently, the Eagles sit sixth in the MAC standings, and that’s not inconsequential. Because the league has lost a couple of teams (Akron and Buffalo) in recent years, they’ve reduced the number of teams that make the MAC tournament from eight to six. That means that EMU is in position to make the trip to Avon, Ohio, for the event as it stands today, but their path won’t be easy, as they have series remaining with two of the three best teams in the league in Central Michigan (May 4-6) and Kent State (May 11-13).
Ohio (20-23, 8-10)
The Bobcats might have lost their series this past weekend to Miami, but they did get some good news in an otherwise tough Sunday finale, a 4-2 defeat.
Two-way player Michael Klein made his first start since the Bowling Green series more than a month ago, and while he didn’t go deep into the game, which is understandable given that he hadn’t been stretched out in a while, he was effective. He threw 4.1 innings, giving up three hits and one run with two walks and five strikeouts.
It was also a big weekend for reliever Cory Blessing, who was basically unhittable in two different appearances. On Friday, in Ohio’s 4-3 win, he threw four shutout innings, giving up just one hit with no walks and eight strikeouts. Then, on Sunday, he threw two more shutout innings, giving up just one hit along the way. On the season, Blessing has a 3.02 ERA in 41.2 innings of work.
Toledo (14-26, 8-10)
Toledo took their lumps over the weekend on the way to being swept by conference leader Kent State by scores of 3-1, 4-2, and 13-3.
They were in each of the first two games of the weekend, thanks in large part to their starting pitching. In the opener, Joey Prechtel threw six innings, giving up six hits and three runs, and in Saturday’s game, Sam Shutes threw seven innings, giving up seven hits and three runs.
In the Friday game, Ross Adolph connected for a home run in the ninth inning, continuing what has been a potential All-MAC season for the Findlay, Ohio, native. He’s hitting .327/.448/.673 with nine doubles, six triples, 11 home runs, 43 RBI, and ten stolen bases.
Bowling Green (10-29, 5-11)
Kody Brown might not have had his absolute best weekend on the mound (4 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 2 BB, 1 K) as his team was swept by Central Michigan, but he’s clearly one of the best bullpen arms in the MAC this season. In 17 appearances, three of which were starts, he has a 2.19 ERA over 49.1 innings. With Brad Croy (3.55 ERA, 33 IP), who threw 3.1 scoreless innings in the Saturday game, the Falcons boast quite the impressive long relief duo.
With series against Northern Illinois and Toledo still ahead, BGSU has winnable weekends in front of them to try to get into position for the MAC tournament, but they also have a series this coming weekend with Kent State looming, and the bigger question is if they’ll be able to leapfrog enough teams in the league to get into the top six, even if they win the series in front of them.
Northern Illinois (15-28, 5-13)
In getting swept by Ball State over the weekend, NIU wasn’t able to build upon the previous weekend’s upset series win over Miami. Adding insult to injury, the fact that two of the losses to BSU, a 3-2 defeat in game one (in 11 innings, no less) and a 5-4 setback in game three, were by one run means that they were a couple of plays away from flipping that result and winning the series.
Tanner Foster was outstanding for the Huskies in the opener. He threw eight innings, giving up seven hits and two runs with no walks and eight strikeouts. Although that’s nothing new, because Foster has been a workhorse all season. He has a 2.48 ERA on the year, with a 64/21 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .242 opponent batting average in 61.2 innings.
Michael Lasiewicz didn’t fare quite as well in Saturday’s game, but he, too, has been a dependable part of the weekend rotation. He has a 2.63 ERA, a 60/27 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and a .233 opponent batting average in 65 innings of work.