The University at Buffalo’s run to the Mid-American Conference baseball semifinals last season had little impact on how they were perceived throughout the rest of the league. When the preseason poll was released, the Bulls were picked to finish last in the East Division. What took place in 2012 was dismissed as a lightning strike.
There were legit reasons to anticipate a UB slide. For one, last season marked the first time in program history the Bulls managed to qualify for the eight-team conference tournament. What’s more, their best player, Tom Murphy, went in the Major League Draft and is now tearing it up in the Colorado Rockies chain. It’s understandable why some may have questioned UB’s ability to sustain.
But the Bulls have done more than sustain. They’ve gone where no UB team has gone before while running their conference record to 14-4 with Friday afternoon’s 6-1 victory over Ohio University at the Northtown Center. No UB team – not even last year’s surprising bunch – ever won more than 11 MAC games. And consider that eight conference games still remain on the schedule.
“It’s a surprise but it’s definitely a pleasant surprise,” senior center fielder Jason Kanzler said. “And now that we’re winning there’s definitely a great team expectation to win. It makes it a lot easier to win when you expect to win. You just come to the field and take care of business instead of last year when it was backs against the wall and having to battle for our wins. This is a lot different. We’re in control of our own destiny now whereas last year we were relying on teams to lose and whatnot.”
UB qualified for the MAC Tournament on the final day of last year’s regular season. This time around they’re eyeing the No. 1 overall seed and even daring to dream of a title.
“That would be an amazing feeling,” said shortstop and Sunday’s starting pitcher Mike Burke. “I really hope that it happens. I believe we can do it. That’s our focus right now. I want that MAC championship so bad. I want that ring on my finger and I know everyone else does too. We’re fighting.”
Contending in the MAC is a colossal challenge for the Bulls. Coach Ron Torgalski has 7.5 scholarships to dole out. He said he thinks every other team in the conference has 11.7. That means the Bulls are usually leaner than the competition when it comes to depth. Whereas perennial power Kent State might run a parade of pitchers to the mound based on matchups, Torgalski often has had to sit tight.
“It’s harder for us,” Torgalski said. “And that’s always been our problem is depth issues. You look at a team like Kent and they got 10-12 pitchers that are 89 and 93-94 [mph] and we don’t have that. There’s been some conference weekends where we’ll use five pitchers while other teams are going right-left-right, matchup the last two, three innings. Same with defensive replacements, pinch hitting.
“But I think we’re getting there. We’re not forced to play the young guys like we have in the past, which is a good thing because it tells me the program is developing. It’s getting deeper. It’s getting better.”
Pitching has been key to UB befuddling the prognosticators. Sophomore Mike McGee didn’t have command of his fastball Friday but persevered through 5∑ innings, allowing just an unearned run. Freshman Ben Hartz, typically the set-up man, went the rest of the way and allowed just two hits to continue his exemplary work out of the bullpen. Hartz’s solid outing enabled Torgalski to rest closer River McWilliams, who already has set the school single-season record with 10 saves.
“Going in, when people asked me expectations, I said we’re going to swing it and it all depends how these youngsters throw on the mound,” McWilliams said. “I was predicting somewhere between sixth and 10th in the MAC, to compete for another tournament bid, and once you get there anything can happen. In my mind the youngsters have exceeded expectations on the mound and thrown really well for us.”
“Our pitching staff has thrown well this year,” Torgalski said. “Our ERA (3.7) is as low as it’s ever been. Our weekend rotation has been going deep into games every weekend. Mike McGee and Anthony Magovney, two sophomores, are Friday-Saturday guys.”
The bats weren’t out in full force Friday. Ohio starter Jake Miller kept the Bulls off balance with a nice mix that included a sharp breaking ball. But UB hung in, awaiting its opportunity, and broke the game open when it got to the Ohio bullpen. Senior Tom Richards produced a key two-run double while Mike Scarcello (Timon-St. Jude) went 2 for 3 with an RBI and saved a run on defense.
“We don’t have the highest batting average in the conference, but when we need a hit in a certain situation we’ve been getting a hit,” Torgalski said. “When we need to get an out, our defense will make a play and get an out. When we need a strikeout to shut teams down we’ve been doing it. And we’ve been doing it every weekend.”
The sense of belief set in after the conference opener against Central Michigan. Down, 4-0, into the ninth inning, the Bulls rallied to win, 5-4. This season began to feel like last season, when UB finished strong.
“That was a huge win for us,” Burke said. “My three years here, that was the first comeback win that I could remember that stands out in conference play. That was huge. That showed that we have a lot of heart. We also had that comeback game against Akron where we were down 5-1. We had a lot of confidence even though we were behind.”
Validation that the Bulls were for real came with a three-game sweep of Kent State. The Bulls hadn’t beaten the Golden Flashes even once since 2008. And Kent State hadn’t been swept in a conference series since 2008.
“With Kent, I think we were down every game at some point but we didn’t panic,” Kanzler said. “Whereas every other year I’ve been here if you go down to Kent State it’s just flattening. It just destroys you. There’s definitely a marked change in how we approach our game.”
The Bulls (24-17 overall) hold a 1½-game lead over Kent State in the MAC East and went into Friday a half-game ahead of Northern Illinois in the race for the top overall record.
It’s a dramatic turnaround for a program that Kanzler said was forever lightly regarded throughout the conference, “We were kind of the joke – I don’t know if we were the joke but that’s what it felt like a little bit.”
The Bulls finish up their final conference homestand with 1 p.m. games today and Sunday. Their final two MAC series will take them to Miami and Bowling Green, the third-and fourth-place teams in the East.