AVON — If given enough opportunities, a player will often make his opponent pay.
Akron learned that lesson Sunday in the Mid-American Conference championship game at All Pro Freight Stadium.
After grounding into three double plays, Zarley Zalewski drove a two-run double into the gap in right-center in the eighth inning to lift Kent State to a 3-0 win over the Zips. The victory earned the Golden Flashes an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Zalewski turned on an Evan Jensen fastball, scoring Jon Wilson and Cody Koch. Zalewski came around to score on a one-out single by Curtis Olvey.
“It was the same approach I had all game, it was just that that one worked out much better than the first three,” the switch-hitting Zalewski said of the double. “I tried to see the ball up and drive it to get a run in. It felt good off the bat and I put a great swing on it. It helped win us a ballgame.”
Golden Flashes’ coach Jeff Duncan — in his first season after replacing Scott Stricklin, who left to take the head coaching position at The University of Georgia — thought Zalewski’s final at-bat was an emotional lift for his team.
“The kid is so resilient,” Duncan said. “He’s a great hitter and the whole coaching staff has nothing but belief in Zarley Zalewski. He’s done it all year long. Those first three at-bats were tough on him, then he switches over to the left side and gets that big hit. That was an emotional period, even for a coach, to see that.
“That’s what baseball’s all about. In baseball you have to handle adversity and he sure did. He came up big.”
The Golden Flashes (36-21) won the MAC championship for the fifth time in the last six seasons and for the 11th time overall. Their pitching staff had a big hand in the title … especially the bullpen.
John Fasola continued the strong relief work, allowing just one runner on one hit in 2⅓ innings. Starter Michael Clark held the Zips (28-29) scoreless for 6⅔ innings, giving up four hits and striking out three.
In 36 innings in the MAC Tournament, Kent allowed 24 hits and just five earned runs (1.25 ERA), while striking out 26 and walking just 10. The bullpen was perfect, not allowing an earned run and allowing only four baserunners in 7⅔ innings while striking out six.
“Both our starters and our bullpen were outstanding,” Duncan said.
Matt Dyer, Akron’s 6-foot-9 starting pitcher, held Kent to just one run in 7⅓ innings.
“This is a great feeling,” said Kent State freshman Eric Lauer, a Midview grad who picked up the win in Saturday’s semifinal. “This is why I came here. … I knew we were a championship team that could make a run in the playoffs and win in the playoffs. This is the college feeling and experience that I wanted.”
The Golden Flashes will find out who and where they play in the NCAA regionals at noon when the pairings are released.
- There were five members of last year’s Lorain County Ironmen on the rosters of the two MAC title game participants. Billy Salem, Andrew Fanning and Zack Beaver played for Akron this season while Troy Summers and Dan Kopcek play for the Golden Flashes. Summers made a diving catch in left field in the championship game, while Kopcek retired all 10 Ball State batters he faced in Kent’s quarterfinal win over the Cardinals.
- Lauer had a large contingent of family and friends in attendance for his victory over Western Michigan on Saturday night. “There was a ton,” he said. “I had so many text messages and my dad said his phone was blowing up with people coming to the game. It was nice because that was one of the reasons I stayed close. It was nice that everyone could come watch me in the tournament when it was big.”
- Kent State was able to win despite losing its leading hitter to injury and starting shortstop to sickness. Right fielder Alex Miklos, who hit .362 with three home runs, tore his left ACL late in the season. Shortstop Sawyer Polen missed the tournament with mononucleosis.
- Akron lost 14 of its final 19 regular-season games and dropped five series in a row before going on a 4-0 run in the MAC Tournament to advance to the championship game.
Contact Mike Perry at 329-7135 or email@example.com.