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By Allen Moff | Staff writer
'Defense wins championships' is an adage not typically used in baseball circles, but it certainly applies to Kent State in 2014.
While the Golden Flashes' pitching and hitting have been solid for the vast majority of the Mid-American Conference season, defensive lapses have reared their ugly head at various times throughout an otherwise successful campaign.
The Flashes' defense was at its shakiest on Sunday, when four errors and a pair of passed balls cost them a chance to sweep MAC foe Miami. Those miscues led to four unearned runs that proved to be the difference in a 6-4 loss at Schoonover Stadium that leaves Kent State (22-12, 9-3) tied with Akron for first place in the East Division.
"Just one of those games today when we kind of beat ourselves," said KSU first-year coach Jeff Duncan. 'We had four errors today, gave them extra outs. We're a very dynamic ballclub offensively and on the mound, but when we give them free outs like we did today (a loss is) what can happen."
Several of those mistakes occurred during a bizarre three-run sixth inning for Miami (14-20, 5-7), which proved to be the difference.
Ryan Elble led off with a bunt and reached first on an error by Flashes first baseman Cody Koch. A passed ball moved him to second, then RedHawks leadoff hitter Jake Romano bunted a 3-2 pitch to starting pitcher Brian Clark. The former Stow High School star fielded the bunt but his throw was off target for another error, putting runners on first and third with nobody out.
Dan Walsh then tried a third straight bunt, but this time Clark fielded it and Elble was eventually tagged out in a rundown while the runners advanced to second and third.
Kent State junior reliever Josh Pierce entered the fray and unleashed a wild pitch, allowing Romano to score the go-ahead run.
A sacrifice fly by Scott Slappey -- the first hit that traveled more than 30 feet that inning -- made it 4-2, then Max Andresen tacked on an RBI single to give Miami a 5-2 lead.
The Flashes cut the deficit to 5-4 on an RBI single by junior Alex Miklos in the sixth and a two-out solo homer by sophomore Justin Wagler in the eighth. They had chances to do further damage in both innings, but left a pair of runners on base each time.
Clark (3-6) was tagged with the loss after allowing four runs on six hits with two walks and seven strikeouts in 51⁄3 innings of work. Three of those runs were unearned, and two scored after he left the game.
"Brian Clark was good. Unfortunately when he was on the mound we mishandled some bunts," said Duncan. "Brian's a really good pitcher. They took advantage of us not executing on bunt plays."
The Flashes have now committed 14 errors in their last eight games dating back to a three-game series at Ohio last weekend, which they swept despite piling up five errors.
"It was tough playing conditions (at Ohio) and we didn't play great (defense)," said Duncan, referring to the extreme wet field conditions in Athens. "We had some guys get into some fielding funks, and ever since then I think they've been lacking a little confidence. We've gotta get that confidence back this week. I think it's gonna come around, we just need to continue to work on it."
While the loss was certainly frustrating, obviously no one's ready to push the panic button after watching Kent State lose for just the fourth time in the last 18 games.
"Does it irk me that we didn't sweep? Yeah. But we've just gotta continue to build and get better," said Duncan. "I think we're feeling good on the pitching end. Obviously we're feeling good offensively (averaging nearly 7 runs per game). We've been swinging the bats very well, especially in this last month. We just need to lock down our defense and minimize some of those mistakes. All in all I think we're going in the right direction."
Senior Jon Wilson had a double, single and RBI, Miklos drove in a pair of runs, and freshman Zach Beckner had two doubles for Kent State, which will continue to 10-game homestand with non-league battles against Wright State on Tuesday and Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
Facebook: Allen Moff, Record-Courier