Deep pitching staff gives MSU hope for NCAA tourney

·4 min read

May 27—Back in 2013 and 2014, the Minnesota State baseball teams were making deep runs at the NCAA tournament, finishing third in 2013 and second in 2014.

Harvey Martin, Jason Hoppe and Mahlon Zimmerman were some of the pitchers on those staffs, names that still show up in the Minnesota State record books.

"I got here right after Harvey Martin and Jason Hoppe, and I wanted to be one of those guys," Minnesota State senior pitcher Jon Ludwig said.

Now Ludwig is one of the Mavericks' top pitchers on a very deep staff, giving him a lot of optimism about how things might go in the NCAA tournament, which begins with Central Region play Friday at Warrensburg, Missouri.

The Mavericks were seeded third in the region, despite winning the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference regular-season and tournament championships, and will open region play at 11 a.m. Thursday against Arkansas Tech.

"I think we have a chip on our shoulder," Ludwig said.

The Mavericks' pitching staff leads Division II in earned-run average at 3.03. In 2013, the Mavericks had a team ERA of 2.78; in 2014, the team ERA was 2.99.

"Coming into this season, we knew Jon Ludwig was coming back, but after that, there was a lot of uncertainty," Minnesota State coach Matt Magers said. "Collin (Denk) was only in his second year, and (Brendan) Knoll hadn't pitched much. Nick Altermatt was the freshman of the year as a shortstop (in 2019), and he had only pitched summer baseball.

"We're fortunate to have Jon available at the back of the bullpen. If the starter can gives us five innings, Jon can give us 1 or 2 innings, and then we have Hunter Even at the end to get those big, final outs."

Ludwig said his staff reminds him of 2017, when the Mavericks featured Dalton Roach, Ricky Digrugilliers, Mitchell Bauer, Brody Rodning and Nick Belzer. That staff had a 2.78 ERA, leading the team to a couple of NCAA victories.

"This staff might not have the professional prospects, but this staff has depth and has performed very well," Ludwig said. "I think this is our best chance to get to the World Series since I've been here."

The Mavericks will go with Denk in the opener. The sophomore is 10-0 with a 1.83 ERA, which ranks 11th in Division II, striking out 73 with only four walks in 64 innings. He gave up four earned runs and 10 hits in five innings in a game against Augustana in the Northern Sun tournament, which Ludwig said should be used as a learning experience.

"You always want to pitch a shutout, but you can't expect it," Ludwig said. "You're going to give up hits so your mindset has to be 'how do I get the next out?' or 'what do I have to do to hold the lead?' You have to check your ego and do the best you can."

After Game 1, depending on how many pitchers are used in the opener, it could be Altermatt or Knoll or Cam Kline to start the second game. When Altermatt pitches, Jack Friedges plays shortstop.

"We have the experience and the pitching depth to do well," Magers said. "When you get in these long tournaments, you need more than one or two guys.

"We have 12 seniors who know what to expect. This team has taken a business-like approach; they're physically, mentally and emotionally mature. There isn't much these guys haven't been through.

Ludwig has been sharing his experience with teammates this week, making sure everybody is properly prepared for the intensity of NCAA play. He's been in the program for seven years so he's seen a lot of odd things and plenty of big victories.

There was 2015 when Henderson State, the last team to get into the region tournament, ending up winning the title. He remembers 2016 when the Mavericks upset No. 1-seeded St. Cloud State in the first game of the NCAA tournament.

"Seeding doesn't matter anymore," Ludwig said. "Everyone wants to win it just as bad. You have to do what it takes to win."

Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.

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