George Roberts and his Kent State University teammates reached a familiar destination on Saturday afternoon, but took a somewhat different route in winning their third consecutive Mid-American Conference (MAC) regular-season title.
Senior first baseman Roberts hit two doubles in Saturday’s 4-1 win over Akron. That’s been a familiar theme over the past four NCAA Division I baseball seasons. This time though, the Golden Flashes needed some help and officially clinched the championship after Bowling Green took a walk-off win over Buffalo at just about the same time as Kent State concluded its game.
“It’s been great. We’ve won three in a row in the regular season,” said Roberts, a Forest Hills High School graduate and former AAABA League MVP. “We’ve had success and won the conference tournament four years in a row. Hopefully, we can win some games and do it again next week.”
The Golden Flashes will take a 34-21 record into the MAC Tournament at Avon, Ohio. Kent State ended the regular season with seven straight wins, including a pair of conference road doubleheader sweeps and an impressive upset over No. 16 Pitt. The Flashes have won four consecutive conference tournaments.
Roberts is the reigning MAC Player of the Year. He figures to be in the talk for the same honor this season after bringing a team-best .348 batting average, 10 doubles, two triples, two homers and 39 RBI into this weekend’s games.
Last spring, Kent State advanced through two regional events and into the College World Series.
“When you win as much as we do in the conference, there is a target on our back, but we don’t let it bother us,” Roberts said after Kent finished 20-7 in the MAC. “We just go out and play baseball.”
Kent State typically brought out the best of the opposition this spring. That’s just how it is after a trip to the College World Series.
“This year, even in the non-conference games, there’s a bigger target on our backs,” Roberts said. “We have a good non-conference schedule and they were gunning for us. We couldn’t sneak up on anybody because we made it so far last year.
“Any time a team beats us, it builds up their confidence. They say they beat a team that went to the World Series last year.”
Likewise, Roberts attracted plenty of attention. Opposing hurlers often pitched around him or carefully avoided throwing him juicy pitches.
“It’s been tougher this year. I haven’t had as many good pitches to hit,” said Roberts, who entered the weekend with 26 walks and was hit by 10 pitches. “When I do get good pitches to hit, you have to make sure you hit them. You have to take what they’re giving you.
“I haven’t changed my approach too much. It’s been different. I try to stay determined and try to help the team as much as I can in any way.”
The former Delweld star has done plenty.
He lettered all four seasons at Kent State and was a 2013 Louisville Slugger Pre-Season First-Team All-American.
In addition to earning the 2012 MAC Player of the Year, Roberts was a second-team All-American and an American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlings All-Mideast Region second-team pick. As a junior, he led the team with a .364 batting average and collected 96 hits. He led the MAC with a .393 average and 31 RBI in conference play a year ago.
But Roberts faced adversity early in his senior season. The 6-foot, 195-pound slugger fouled a pitch off his hand during his second at-bat of the year.
X-rays initially came back negative, but eventually Roberts said he learned he broke the hamate bone in his left wrist and needed surgery.
A determined Roberts worked his way back into the starting lineup weeks earlier than had been expected. He regained his form along the way.
“I got hurt early and was a little bit down,” Roberts said.
Winning has a way of easing some of the pain.
“As the team got together, we’ve been playing well,” Roberts said.
“At times we were a little inconsistent. Towards the end of the year, in May, we usually start playing our best baseball. We’ve done well, but we still haven’t played our best yet.”
If the Golden Flashes elevate their play this week, the MAC better look out.
Mike Mastovich is a sports writer for The Tribune-Democrat.