There is no question that this is the most fun Ashland University senior pitcher Chris Slavik has had in his baseball career.
The Eagles are 32-7 overall, sit atop the GLIAC standings, and are likely headed for their second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
And Slavik is a major reason why.
Moved to the closer role after three seasons as a rotation/bullpen swingman and starter, the right-hander has struck out 48 batters in just 31 2/3 innings.
"It was a big jump for me, but aside from that, the biggest change came mentally preparing for games," said Slavik, who had been used to a one-start-per week routine as a junior when he was 4-2 with a 4.34 ERA and made 15 appearances (nine starts). "Now, one baserunner can be the difference between us winning and us losing, or going into extra innings. You have to be a lot more careful."
Much of the time, Slavik is coming on in tight spots protecting a lead or a tie game. AU's starting rotation has a 3.96 ERA this season, anchored by senior right-hander Devin Peters and junior right-hander Chance Hitchcock.
"For me it's been loads of fun to be able to throw after those guys and making sure we're getting what we deserve as pitchers out of the game," Slavik said. "The hitters put up a few runs, we want to make sure that stays. Petey and Chance are throwing seven, eight innings of great baseball, we want to make sure they hold onto that win."
Prior to the season, head coach John Schaly talked about the depth in the team's pitching staff and that has come to fruition. After the four solid weekend starters, Schaly can turn to multiple options in the bullpen to lock down wins.
"They're valuable weapons at the end of the game so it takes a little stress off the starting pitcher," said Schaly. "They can go strong for a shorter amount of time. Our bullpen has been a major part of our success this year."
"It's an incredible luxury," said Slavik. "To have guys like (Smith) being able to bridge the gap after the starters throw a great game, is an unbelievable luxury. If the starter knows if they can make it through five, give the ball to (Smith), give the ball to me or Curtis or anyone else coming out of the pen, it's lot less stressful, and a great luxury for the coaching staff I'm sure.
As the Eagles' closer, Slavik has already appeared a GLIAC-leading 18 times and has piled up nine wins, a mark that is tied for fifth in the nation. He also has four saves and twice has won two games in one day.
And there are the strikeout totals. He is striking out 13.6 batters per nine innings as he has gone to an almost exclusive mix of a fastball and wipeout slider. His first three years, Slavik's arsenal contained the fastball and a curveball, while the slider was in development.
"We've thrown the curveball out, just showing it when I need to if guys prove they can foul stuff off," said Slavik. "Now it's pretty much fastball, slider."
Early in April, Slavik tossed seven straight hitless innings over four appearances, and is currently on a run of 3 2/3 straight innings of hitless ball. The miscues have been few and far between for Slavik, who has a 2.84 ERA.
His success has matched the team's as the Eagles are already just one win shy of last year's win total when they were the No. 6 seed in the Midwest Regional. Ashland is currently No. 2 in the Midwest Region rankings and will head to Northwood for a crucial series this weekend. The Timberwolves are No. 5 in the region.
"This is every senior's dream the way it's come together," said Slavik. "We've always had close guys and a close team, but this is as close as we've been in four years. It's a lot of fun to be a part of. I think I can speak for all the seniors and say this is exactly how you envision your career ending as a college athlete. There's not much more that I can say about this team than it's absolutely incredible.
"Hopefully we still have a month-and-a-half left."