CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — Three is a magic number. You’ll have a hard time convincing Kent State otherwise after the Golden Flashes stormed past Miami (Ohio) 11-0 in the 2011 Mid-American Conference Tournament Championship Game on Saturday afternoon, clinching the program’s unprecedented third consecutive conference tournament title and ninth in program history.
The win also punched Kent State’s ticket to the 2011 NCAA Championships as the MAC’s automatic bid, marking the 11th time Kent State will appear in the national tournament and third consecutive appearance.
“We got some runs early, and our pitching was unbelievable,” said seventh-year head coach Scott Stricklin. “We made sure they knew they had a big challenge today, and we told the pitchers to strap it on and the hitters to have it ready. It was great to see our kids perform like they did.”
Ranked No. 25 in the nation according to the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper, the Golden Flashes (43-15) won their ninth conference tournament crown in program history, seventh in the last 10 years and fourth under seventh-year head coach Scott Stricklin. The program becomes the MAC’s first to win back-to-back-to-back tournaments, and the 2011 squad becomes the first to capture both the regular season and tournament titles since the 2005 Miami team did it. No. 1-seeded Kent State became the first top seed to win the MAC Tournament since that same Miami accomplished the feat, with the Flashes doing it with a 4-1 record over the past four days. The Flashes opened the tournament with a 6-2 victory against Bowling Green on Wednesday and followed it with a 5-4 triumph against Eastern Michigan on Thursday . EMU forced the Flashes to win two games on championship Saturday after beating Kent State 4-2 on Friday, but Kent State answered the challenge by shutting out the Eagles, 8-0, in the semifinal today to advance to their sixth consecutive championship game and the 14th in program history. The squad becomes Kent State’s sixth to win more than 40 games in a season.
Junior left-handed starting pitcher and First Team All-MAC pick David Starn delivered a four-hit shutout gem in seven innings of work to improve to 9-2, matching his career-high of 11 strikeouts and passing Matt Guerrier for the second-most strikeouts in a single season with 114 to earn MAC Tournament MVP honors. He joins Dustin Hermanson, Ryan Beeney, Tim Fails, Jon VanBenschoten, Andy Sonnanstine, Jason Patton, Chris Tremblay and Justin Gill as the ninth Golden Flash to garner that honors. Starn went 2-0 in two starts in the 2011 MAC Tournament, striking out 15 and allowing just two earned runs on 10 hits in 14.1 innings.
“They told me if we got to the championship game, I would probably get the start,” said Starn. “To get the run support was such a spark. We just didn’t let them get any runs.”
The senior righty Gill completed the shutout by tossing scorless eighth and ninth innings, marking Kent State’s 12th shutout victory of 2011 and second in as many games.
“I guess this one is better than the last one since it’s fresh,” said Gill. “This group of guys is just unbelievable. It seems like I have 27 best friends. We’re such a close-knit group, and it’s exciting to be moving on to the NCAA Championships with this team.”
Kent State’s final championship push began with the Flashes unloading a five-run opening frame on Miami. Sophomore center fielder Evan Campbell got things rolling by drawing a walk. Junior shortstop Jimmy Rider and junior third baseman and First Team All-MAC pick Travis Shaw each followed with base hits to fill the bags with Flashes. Senior right fielder and First Team All-MAC pick Ben Klafczynski landed the game’s first punch by driving home Campbell with a base hit to center. That set up a bases-bases clearing triple to right center by junior catcher David Lyon to make it 4-0. His seventh triple of 2011 ties Matt Rundels’ Kent State single-season record set in 1991. His 10 career triples match Rich Rollins, Jim Givens, Mike Gulan and VanBenschoten for fourth-most all-time in Kent State history. Lyon then put the RedHawks in a 5-0 hole by scampering home on a wild pitch.
“I knew, with the bases loaded, they weren’t going to try to walk me or pitch around me. I was just looking for a fastball to hit. That’s what they threw, and I put the barrel on it.”
Kent State tacked on single insurance runs in both the third and fourth innings. Klafczynski led off the third by working the count full and drawing a walk. He advanced to both second and third on wild pitches, then scored courtesy of an single to third by redshirt junior left fielder Joe Koch. Rider drew a four-pitch one-out walk, moved to second on a groundout and then scored by way of a base hit to left by Klafczynski in the fourth to make it 7-0.
“I feel so blessed to have this opportunity,” said Klafczynski. “All the championships are great and special in their own way.”
Kent State wasn’t done yet. Klafczynski hit a one-out base hit to short and stole second to set the table for a two-run round tripper over the left field wall by Lyon to make it 9-0 in the seventh.
Kent State’s lead swelled to double digits when Koch led off the eighth with a single and later scored on an RBI groundout by Rider. Campbell, who reached by way of a fielder’s choice, scored on a single up the middle by Shaw.