AVON — Kent State wasn’t facing elimination, so it found another way to deliver under pressure.
Get a bunch of two-out hits.
Half of the fourth-seeded Golden Flashes’ runs came on hits with two outs Saturday, including three in a game-changing seventh inning as they defeated No. 8 Western Michigan 12-2 in the Mid-American Conference Tournament at All Pro Freight Stadium.
The Golden Flashes (35-21) also got a dominant performance from freshman left-hander Eric Lauer. The Midview graduate pitched 72⁄3⅔ innings, striking out five with four walks. He allowed six hits but only one earned run.
Kent State will take on rival Akron, the seventh seed, in the championship today at noon.
The Zips advanced with a 5-4 win over No. 6 Buffalo in 12 innings. Despite the double-elimination format, they will play only one game because both teams are undefeated in the tournament.
“I was just trying to get back to how it was in the beginning of the year,” Lauer said. “There wasn’t too much of a difference, just certain things I needed to focus on and certain things I needed to get out of my head. It was a nice outing and I felt really good the whole time.”
Despite the lopsided score, Western Michigan (24-31) had a chance to seize control of the game in the bottom of the sixth, the only inning Lauer got into trouble. Trailing 2-1, the Broncos had bases loaded and no outs after Lauer bobbled the ball while fielding a bunt attempt.
But after Theo Piccirilli drove in a run on a fielder’s choice, the Broncos let Kent State off the hook. Hunter Prince popped up a bunt to first base and Dan Shutes struck out looking.
“That was tough,” Lauer said. “I didn’t worry about the baserunners too much. I just tried to throw strikes and, hopefully, have somebody help me out. It wasn’t much of a strategy, just throw strikes like usual.”
Kent State would not show the Broncos the same mercy in the seventh.
Western Michigan had things under control with two outs and a runner on second until Cody Koch drove in one of his three RBIs. Two batters later, T.J. Sutton drove in his two RBIs with a booming double to right field, effectively breaking the game open.
Kent State piled on with two runs in the eighth and four in the ninth — two of the ninth-inning runs coming with two outs.
“Coming up with two outs and knowing I had guys on I had to really come through there,” Sutton said. “I just stayed back and he left the change-up up, so I did whatever I had to do to put that ball in play. We needed to get it going there because Lauer was pitching his butt off the whole game and we owed him some runs.”
Prior to the fourth inning, it looked as if runs would be at a premium. The Broncos’ Steve Laudicina was perfect through three and retired the first 10 he faced before hitting Troy Summers with a pitch. Zarley Zalewski got the first hit for Kent State two batters later.
Lauer’s only blemishes in the first three innings were two walks and a hit. He had strikeouts.
“We love playing with two outs for some reason,” Lauer said. “We get a lot of two-out hits and RBIs, it was unbelievable. Everybody hitting the ball is a nice feeling when you’re a pitcher. It takes a little stress off of you. You can go out and just throw.”
Akron pulled a page out of the Cleveland Indians’ book earlier Saturday to get past Buffalo in extra innings. Instead of winning with a balk, James Sheltrown drew a walk on a 3-2 count with no outs and the bases loaded.
Akron is making its first appearance in the MAC Tournament since 2005 and in the championship game since 1996.
“Facing Akron will be fun,” Lauer said. “It’s my first MAC title game, but I’m pretty certain we’ll come out with it because we’ve got plenty of arms left.
Having Akron be a rival just makes it all that much better. It’s going to be that much more intense because we’re rivals.”
Contact Chris Sweeney at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: MAC championship
WHO: Kent State (35-21) vs. Akron (28-28)
WHERE: All Pro Freight Stadium, Avon