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By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
Aside from Senior Night, not much has gone according to script thus far for the 2014 Kent State baseball team.
The Golden Flashes closed the regular season by shellacking rival Akron 19-0 last Saturday night at Schoonover Stadium, but still fell short in their quest to claim a fifth straight Mid-American Conference East Division championship. Injuries, illnesses and inconsistencies in every phase of the game have plagued the team throughout the '14 campaign, leading to losses in eight of their last 12 contests.
A 32-21 record in considered exceptional for most programs, but not Kent State, which has won 32 or more games for 15 straight seasons.
But four days of great baseball at this week's MAC Tournament will make Flashes fans forget all about any and all struggles their team has been forced to endure this season. And Kent State certainly has the talent and depth necessary to produce four exceptional days on the diamond.
"We had a rough couple weeks. Not that we played bad, it just wasn't falling our way," said senior outfielder and leadoff hitter Jon Wilson.
"Our best baseball is definitely still ahead of us," Wilson said.
The Flashes (16-11 MAC) hope to peak when it matters most, which is this week. They enter the MAC tourney at All Pro Freight Stadium in Avon as the fourth seed, and will open against defending tourney champion and No. 5 seed Bowling Green (25-24, 15-11) today at 1 p.m.
Kent State was 12-4 in conference play before dropping the final two games of their series at BG, and wound up losing seven of their final 11 MAC contests.
"We really need revenge after what happened in the regular season (at Bowling Green), so we're excited," said senior pitcher Michael Clark. "This is the time of the season when we play our best ball."
Players like Clark (3-1, 1.24 ERA), who threw five shutout innings and allowed just one hit in a spot start against Akron on Saturday, give Kent State an advantage over the rest of the field. The Flashes are loaded with quality arms, which become crucial as teams advance deep into a five-day, double-elimination tournament.
"I think we have the pitching depth to go very deep in this tournament," said first-year coach Jeff Duncan. "It's gonna come down to some timely hits and some really good at-bats all the way through (the lineup), and good defense."
Junior Brian Clark (5-6, 4.08 ERA) will start against the Falcons. The former Stow High School star struggled early in the season while making the transition from a reliever to a starter, but quickly settled in and wound up 4-2 with a 2.72 ERA against MAC foes.
"I want (Clark) to go that first game," said Duncan. "He's been really good, and I trust him."
Duncan has been forced to trust some inexperienced position players due to the loss of junior centerfielder Alex Miklos and junior shortstop Sawyer Polen, a pair of third-year starters.
Miklos was batting .450 in MAC play before suffering a season-ending knee injury on May 3 against Northern Illinois. He leads KSU with a .362 average, 18 doubles, seven triples, .593 slugging percentage, .439 on-base percentage and 17 stolen bases despite missing the past seven games after suffering the injury.
Polen missed the Akron series after being diagnosed with mononucleosis, and Duncan confirmed on Monday that he will not make the trip to Avon. Polen was batting just .244 on the year, but had at least one hit in nine of his last 11 games.
Wilson shifted from left field to center, while seldom-used senior Troy Summers (.258) started all three games in left against the Zips and collected four hits. True freshman Zach Beckner (.263) filled in at short in place of Polen and collected five RBI and five hits, including his first collegiate homer.
"It's too bad we're missing Alex Miklos and Sawyer Polen, but the guys that have been in their place have stepped up," said Duncan. "Beckner played really good defense and had some really good at-bats (against Akron), and Troy Summers has been outstanding as well. That's really good to see."
Despite losing a pair of big guns, Kent State still has plenty of firepower in its lineup, which sports a .286 team batting average and leads the MAC in runs scored with 348 (6.6 runs per game).
Sophomore designated hitter Zarley Zalewski is tied with Miklos with a team-high .362 average, and also has 15 doubles and 36 RBI. Senior first baseman Cody Koch paces KSU with seven homers and 52 RBI (2nd in the MAC) while batting .317. Wilson is batting .323 with five triples, and senior right fielder T.J. Sutton is hitting .320.
The Flashes believe they put their struggles behind them last weekend, and are ready to prove it this week as they attempt to claim their fifth NCAA tourney bid in the past six years.
"We're looking to take that momentum we built into the tournament," said Duncan. "We're excited to be playing Bowling Green -- we didn't play great against them a couple weeks ago. It'll be a great game I'm sure."
The winner of the Kent State-Bowling Green contest takes on the winner of the matchup between top-seed Ball State (38-16, 22-4) and No. 8 seed Western Michigan (22-29, 11-16) Thursday at 8 p.m., while the losers of those same two contests will square off in an elimination game Thursday at 9:30 a.m.
Facebook: Allen Moff, Record-Courier