MUNCIE, Ind. — The conference game is slipping away from Central Michigan, and that hasn’t happened in seven weeks. The Chippewas are making a pitching change and the Ball State public address system is having some fun with the moment.
Coming out of the speakers: A squeaky version of music from the Titanic, played on a flutophone. The home fans laugh, anyway. The visitors don’t. Later, Ball State finishes off Central Michigan, 7-1, the Chippewas’ first MAC defeat since March 11. After seven innings of one-hit pitching, the Cardinals' Tyler Schweitzer nods toward the other now-empty dugout, “It’s very nice watching them lose for the first time in weeks.”
Welcome to one of the best baseball rivalries nobody knows about. You don’t need Ole Miss-Mississippi State to have a fierce competition. Here’s one that might be low on national renown but is certainly high on voltage. Let’s spend a weekend with Central Michigan and Ball State.
Central Michigan arrived with a 21-game winning streak in MAC games and a 21-1 league record, six by shutouts. "Twenty-one in a row, I don’t even know how to speak to that," Ball State coach Rich Maloney says. The Chippewas — 28-10 overall — are fifth in the nation in on-base percentage and 11th in walks. They pitch well, play sound defense and keep the pressure on at bat. They are kings of the league. Ball State is 19-4 in conference play and 25-14 overall. The rest of the conference is at least five games back, distant figures in their rear-view mirrors.
Just like 2021, when Central Michigan won the MAC with a 31-9 league record and Ball State chased the Chippewas to the wire with a 29-11 mark, and nobody else was closer than six games. Just like 2019 — COVID wiped out league play in 2020 — when Central Michigan was 22-5, Ball State 20-5 and third place was five games back.
In the Central Michigan dugout is Jordan Bischel, who has been named coach of the year four consecutive years for two schools in two different conferences — not counting the COVID lost season. He has coached 89 MAC games since 2019 at Central Michigan and won 74. In the Ball State dugout, Maloney has 902 career victories, plus four MAC titles here and two Big Ten championships at Michigan.
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“We’re in quite a few years of playing at a high level. Ball State is, too. It’s a credit when you turn over the roster and keep doing it,” Bischel says.
“In 1996, I come to Ball State and the SID tells me Central Michigan had won 17 straight games against Ball State at Ball State,” Maloney says. “I told the boys, I’ll be doggone if that’s going to be happening to us. We won three of four. So it started back at the beginning. Then Jordan came in 2019 and obviously they’ve done great. But the rivalry was already alive and well long before that. We’ve eliminated them in the tournament, they’ve eliminated us in the tournament. It’s only heightened over the last couple of years. We’ve played almost .800 baseball and not won a championship.”
In other words, here are two guys and two programs that know what they’re doing. “It’s always been us and them in a dogfight,” Ball State’s Zach Cole says. They split 2-2 in a terrific series last season, but Central Michigan ended up with the trophy, same as 2019. When the Chippewas won the league and NCAA tournament spot in 2021 — there was no league tournament — Ball State was hoping for an at-large bid with a 38-18 record that included a series split with Arizona and a series win over Kentucky. It never came.
“That was really hard,” Maloney says. “A guy who’s been in his career as long as I’ve been, being in the NCAA tournament several times, I know what it takes to be at that level, and that team was good enough to be there.”
This year, this weekend, the idea is not to let that happen again.
All 30 Major League Baseball organizations had scouts in the stands Friday to see Schweitzer face Andrew Taylor, reigning MAC pitcher of the year. Schweitzer is so juiced for the moment — “My heart was racing” — he walks the first two batters. But he settles in and he and Taylor each take a one-hit shutout into the seventh. Cole preserves the shutout by crashing into the left-field wall for a catch in the top of the inning, then sends a three-run homer to nearly the same place in the bottom of the seventh. Ball State ends up winning 7-1, with a one-hitter against the lineup with the MAC’s top batting average.
Says Schweitzer, before going off to hug his parents, “It’s a rivalry. It’s big. Every game’s going to count. Having that first game in the bag really keeps our confidence up, because we’ve faced their best arm. So we’re really excited for what’s to come in the next three games.”
But Maloney notes, “The reality is, this is like feeling each other out. This was round one.”
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Two games, six lead changes, Ball State wins both on its last at-bat.
Zach Lane’s walk-off homer ends the opener 6-4 in the eighth inning, the shot coming against Jordan Patty, who last season threw the first perfect game in Central Michigan history.
Between games, Bischel sends a request up to the press box for an announcement to be made, asking for more civil language from the grandstands near the Central Michigan dugout.
Cole’s three-run triple in the sixth inning of the nightcap carries the Cardinals to an 10-7 victory, the fifth time of the day they have come back from a deficit. Cole has produced eight RBI in the three games. He had 16 all season before this weekend. It is also his nation-leading seventh triple, which at the moment is more than 80 Division I teams have it. “It’s pretty surreal,” he says of his RBI surge. “It’s kind of like I’ve been saving them all season for this.”
Afterward, Bischel gathers his Chippewas in right field. The team that came into the weekend on a 21-game league winning streak is suddenly on the verge of being swept in four games.
“I told them the season wasn’t defined today and it won’t be defined tomorrow,” he says. “It’s defined over 56 games and most of them have been pretty good for us. Today not so good. Sometimes you tip the cap, too. You play good teams, sometimes you’re going to get beat. That happens.”
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It happens again. Ball State leads 3-1 — including another homer and RBI by Cole — and Casey Bargo seems in full pitching command, working on a three-hitter with two out in the eighth. Then he grabs his arm and has to be relieved. Tightness or something. Central Michigan immediately rallies and ties, but the Cardinals finish the sweep with Hunter Dobbins’ bases-loaded single in the ninth to win 4-3.
Four games, three Ball State wins on its last at-bat, two walk-offs.
The top of the MAC has flipped — Ball State from 2.5 games back to 1.5 games ahead. If the Cardinals can hold that lead through the last three series of the regular season, they’ll host the MAC tournament.
The teams shake hands afterward, but as for any long conversation between the coaches, “We didn’t have much to say,” Maloney says. “It’s highly competitive.”
While the loud speaker blares out the song "Celebration" Bischel gathers his team again to put a tough weekend in perspective. Before Friday, Central Michigan had dropped just 15 MAC games in the past three league seasons. The Chippewas have just lost four in 48 hours.
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“Every time you play there’s a chance to learn, win or lose hopefully that’s the case,” Bischel says. “We just got outplayed this weekend. Those things happen. In the big leagues they play 162 of these darn things for a reason. One swing either way really defines all of those games. These are two good teams that feel like they can compete with anybody in the country.”
On other side, Maloney soaks in the moment. The past seasons have been frustrating, to play so well but keep hitting the Central Michigan wall. Maybe the weekend was a message.
“This is like, we belong,” he says. “When you think you could have lost this game, you could have lost yesterday, you could have lost any of them. It just so happened we got the job done. The margins are so tight between these two teams.
“This was a big thing for us, and great for the rivalry. Obviously, it just heightened. We’re going to meet up again. You can almost bet the ranch on that.”
He meant the MAC tournament later this month. That ought to be fun.