Back in February the 12 head coaches of Mid American conference baseball gathered in Cleveland to prepare for the upcoming baseball season. One of the unnecessary but interesting parts of these preseason meetings are the annual Coaches poll. In that Bull Buffalo and NIU were picked as the worst two teams in the conference.
Buffalo has historically put less into baseball than just about anyone in the conference. That's why last seasons squads modest accomplishments seemed like it might be a high water mark.
In 2012 UB shocked a lot of people just by qualifying for the conference tournament on the back of a last day win over Bowling Green. The Bulls then turned that into two MAC tournament upsets.
But much of UB's success late last season came off the bat of Thomas Murphy. When the season was over and Murphy was drafted people expected sanity to resume and UB to drop back to the bottom of the east.
Out west Northern Illinois completely missed out on the MAC tournament last season. Not traditionally a total punching bag NIU still put up the conferences worst record in 2012. There was little reason to think the Huskies were destined to make any noise this season.
NIU and Buffalo seemed destined to be cellar dwellers this year.
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But as conference play approached UB was surprisingly sporting the conferences best record. NIU, in the meantime, was a paltry 6-19 so at least there was some sense in those preseason predictions right?
Pundits who followed the MAC dismissed Buffalo as having only moderate success against one of the nations weakest schedules and NIU's batters were terrible, weighing down a somewhat decent set of pitchers.
Then the two teams, the preseason punching bags, started working their way through the MAC. Buffalo has yet to lose a series while NIU has only lost two series so far, one to defending conference champion Kent State.
There are just three MAC games remaining this season and so far only Buffalo, NIU, and Kent have secured a spot in this seasons championship tournament.
The divisional picture goes like this; UB is leading Kent by a half game in the East while NIU has a two game lead over BSU in the west.
So how did Buffalo and NIU get here?
Buffalo has relied Mike Burke, Anthony Magnovy, and Mike McGee to pitch their conference games. The trio owns 38 of UB's 49 starts and the bulk of UB wins. Mike Hartz is a solid middle reliever who has a 6-1 record in 15 appearances. In the late innings the Bulls like to turn to River McWilliams who leads has set the school record for saves and leads the conference.
At the UB has been able to get production from most of their lineup at given points but the team is anchored by Jason Kanzler who leads the MAC in HR's, is second in total bases, third in RBI's, and 5th in slugging percent.
Buffalo's challenge going into the post season is depth. It's hard for a team who gives three quarters of their starts to a trio of pitchers to strategically pick matchups. Hartz has shown some good endurance in his long relief so there is a chance if the Bulls get deep into the MAC tournament they could lean on him and Cory Folk, the only other Bull with more than three starts.
NIU is driven in large part by Eli Anderson who leads the conference in wins, and is third in Strikeouts. The staff as a whole is respectable, ranked third in the MAC in ERA and they are 5th in strikeouts.
The big change, during conference play, has been their production at the plate. NIU's batters have come to life in MAC play. Not to a level above the better teams in the conference but they reached a place where Huskies batters can give the Pitchers enough room to win close games.
In most major batting categories Northern Illinois is somewhere between second and sixth in the conference. They do get a lot of hits, and are pretty good at working them around the bases but as a group they are very vulnerable to strong pitchers. NIU is second in the MAC in strike outs. How that will play out against some of the better pitching teams in the MAC, like Kent and Buffalo, could shape their post season.
The road to their respective division titles vary greatly.
Buffalo has road trip Bowling Green, against a falcons team fighting for their playoff lives. With just a half game to give, and with Kent facing Akron UB has no room to breath. It's very likely the Bulls will have to sweep the Falcons to win the East.
Northern Illinois meanwhile gets to face off against the team gunning for them. Should the Huskies win just one game against Ball State this weekend they claim the west and the third seed in teh MAC post season tournament.
How sweet would it be for UB and NIU to go into Cleveland as the conferences number one and two seeds. What else would you expect from the MAC.