By STEVE KRAH
Matt Eppers can point to some memorable moments during his college diamond days.
The Ball State University senior baseball player is coming off a “career weekend” in which he went 10-of-13 at the plate with his third career home run plus a double, stolen base, sacrifice, four runs scored and three runs batted in.
The Cardinals stopped a nine-game losing skid with a three-game sweep at Western Michigan. BSU outscored the Broncos 46-17. Eppers went 5-for-5 in Game 2 of the series — the first five-hit game of his career.
“We had been pressing a little bit,” says Eppers, speaking for the team as a whole. “We started relaxing and having fun.”
On Tuesday, April 11, Eppers stayed hot with three more hits in an 11-2 win against visiting Valparaiso. In his last four games, he is 13-of-17, raising his average to a team-pacing .311.
Earlier in the 2017 season, Eppers was named Mid-American Conference West Division Player of the Week.
The 6-foot-4 outfielder strung together hits in eight consecutive plate appearances in his junior season of 2016, spanning two games against Dayton and one against Purdue.
The 2013 Elkhart Central High School graduate (he played center field and was the L.V. Phillips Mental Attitude Award winner as the Steve Stutsman-coached Blue Blazers beat Indianapolis Cathedral 1-0 for the ’13 Class 4A state title) also counts a victory against powerhouse Louisiana State in 2016 as a highlight.
As a sophomore in 2015, Eppers scored three runs against Akron and helped the Cardinals to the MAC tournament championship game.
But as outstanding as those achievements are, it’s the relationships that Eppers has made in his four BSU seasons that he cherishes most.
“I came on to this team not knowing anybody,” says Eppers. “My roommate, Sean Kennedy, had a monster weekend himself (at Western Michigan). He hit a grand slam and another home run and had a whole bunch of hits (Kennedy was 7-of-9 with nine RBI in three games). He and I are best friends. I’m going to be the best man in his wedding.
“The relationships that I’ve built, that’s what’s made college baseball worth it. Through the highs and the lows, the guys you’re around and that sense of brotherhood is heightened to a new level in college.”
Eppers roomed with right-handed pitcher B.J. Butler as a freshman and later shared a place with Kennedy and Alex Call (selected in the third round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Chicago White Sox after earning MAC Player of the Year honors in 2016) before Call moved on.
“(Sean) has been very versatile. He’s played every infield position this year. He’s kind of the anchor of our defense. Anywhere we need him, he’s there. With his bat, too. In the middle of the lineup, he’s been a heavy hitter … It was a good weekend for him and I in our apartment.”
Besides Eppers, Kennedy and Butler, the other BSU seniors are right-hander David Current, third baseman Alex Maloney (son of Ball State head coach Rich Maloney), first baseman Caleb Stayton and left-handers Evan Korson (a transfer from Northern Kentucky) and Kevin Marnon (a transfer from Akron).
Rich Maloney has enjoyed watching Eppers perform for the Cards.
“He’s very athletic,” says Maloney. “He covers a lot of ground in center field. He has really good speed. He competes really, really well.
“With the other guys we’ve been able to surround him with in his class, he’s been a really nice piece of the puzzle.
“He’s been a joy to coach.”
The past three seasons, that recruiting class has aided in an overall MAC title, two West division crowns and a tournament runner-up finish while averaging 34 wins.
“They’ve all gotten a taste of winning and enjoyed it and they certainly want to pass it on,” says Maloney. “They are leaders and they’re all going to end up graduating. It’s all good and Matt is certainly a big part of it.”
How does Eppers prefer to do his leading?
“Day-to-day, I just try to lead by example,” says Eppers, who has played in 188 career games with 147 starts. “I’m not really one of the hoorah guys.
“I don’t speak just to speak. When I have to be a vocal leader, I pick my times. I feel like that’s not only benefitted me here but my whole life. When you can do that it makes your word go a little bit farther.”
Maloney coached Ball State 1996-2002 then at Michigan 2003-12 before returning to BSU for the 2013 season. A staple as he took over a program that had not been winning was “Gotta Believe” rally cry (#GottaBelieve).
“The first thing in building a program is you’ve got to get everybody to believe,” says Maloney, whose 2017 assistants are Scott French, Dustin Glant and Ray Skjold. “They’ve got to believe in the coaches. They’ve got to believe in the vision. They’ve got to believe in the system. They’ve got to believe in themselves. They’ve got to believe in their teammates. If you get that going then you have a chance to be successful.”
Facing the toughest schedule of Maloney’s BSU coaching career (win vs. Maryland, four losses to both Oregon State and Kent State and defeats to defending national champion Coastal Carolina plus setbacks against Louisville and West Virgina), Ball State got off to an 11-9 start in 2017 then hit a slide once the MAC part of the slate began.
“We came close in several or them, but couldn’t get over the top,” says Maloney. “(Against Western Michigan), we were able to break through.
Eppers has bought in to Maloney’s belief system.
“You gotta believe that you can get the job done,” says Eppers. “That’s something he’s instilled in all of us.”
“The whole reason I came to Ball State was the vision that he sold. To his credit, he did it. He promised us a new field, improved schedules and improved skills and we got it.
“No matter who we’re playing, you can see it in his eyes. He truly believes Ball State is going to win … Coach has taught us not to ever take a back seat to anybody.”
Since Eppers’ sophomore year, Ball Diamond has been covered with artificial turf. This is a growing trend in the northern U.S., where the maintenance is lower and teams are able to play more games even in cold and wet weather.
Another major difference been grass and turf is the speed of the game.
“On turf, everything is a lot faster,” says Eppers. “A single may turn into a double; a double may turn into a triple. Especially at our field, it plays very fast … It’s probably given me a few more triples, too, so I appreciate it.”
Of 33 starts for a 15-18 squad, Eppers has been in center field for 29 games and right field for four.
“Center has always been my favorite position, where I feel most comfortable,” says Eppers. “You’re the shortstop of the outfield in a way. You’re supposed to be the best all-around defensive player in the outfield. Something I’ve always taken pride in is tracking down balls and trying to make catches other people can’t make.”
Eppers, who hits from the right side, was in the No. 8 slot in the batting order during his recent hot weekend in Kalamazoo, but has appeared in every hole but Nos. 3 and 4 this spring and has led off eight times.
“Everyday I have to check, but it’s not that big of a deal,” says Eppers. “I know my job is to get on base. I’m not a guy who’s going to hit a lot of home runs. I do have a few extra base hits. That’s where I hit the gaps and I’m able to run.”
While he’s taken hundreds of fly balls in the outfield to improve his defense and bulked up to 202 pounds with work in the weight room, Eppers has also adjusted his approach at the plate. He has become more knowledgeable about situational hitting and what pitches he can connect with the best.
“Early in my career I was very vulnerable to the slider and pitcher-advantage counts,” says Eppers. “Now, I’m a tougher out. When the slider is in the dirt, I’m able to lay off that pitch.
“This year I’ve really worked at hitting pitches in the (strike) zone I know I can barrel up. I’m not chasing as many pitches.”
Eppers, 22, is scheduled to graduate in May with a “high stakes” degree in entrepreneurial management.
“It’s basically a pass-fail major,” says Eppers, who was on the MAC all-academic team in 2016 and carried 3.555 grade-point average in the fall. “For a year, you write a business plan, fine tune it and then Wednesday (April 12) we present it in a room with a panel of judges. If they like what you have to say, they pass you. If they don’t, they fail you. If you fail, you have to opportunity to come back next year and re-try or take a couple some classes and (graduate with a different major).
“It puts some stress on you.”
Eppers and his business partner will present a plan on a not-for-profit gym and counseling service for veterans, military members and first responders in the Indianapolis area.
While he is exploring his post-graduation options, Eppers says he is leaning toward staying on the diamond.
“I want to keep playing baseball as long as I can,” says Eppers. “When I’m not allowed to play anymore I’ll have to re-evaluate my professional life.
“For right now I’m just focused on playing baseball and having fun. I’m trying to play every game like it’s my last.”
Matt Eppers contributes speed to the Ball State University baseball team. The Elkhart Central High School graduate is in his senior season. (Ball State Photo)
Matt Eppers has played in 188 baseball games as a Ball State Cardinal through Tuesday, April 11. (Ball State Photo)