With the start of another collegiate baseball season less than a week away, many teams are getting reacquainted to the familiar sights and smells of a new year.
The overwhelming aroma of freshly cut grass. The satisfying crunch of cleats chopping as they navigate the infield dirt. The distinct ping of the metal bat meeting a ball before being tracked down deep in the outfield.
It’s the long-celebrated cliché that comes along with the return of the spring.
But as McLane Baseball Stadium at Old College Field is covered by layer of snow and a tarp, MSU baseball head coach Jake Boss Jr. begins his year much like he has for the previous four at Michigan State — indoors at the team’s hitting complex.
“It’s a tough time of year because it’s not quite game week but it’s starting to get a little monotonous inside,” Boss said. “You really need to tighten the focus and stay on task and understand what we’re trying to accomplish at every practice.”
Boss spent much of the past couple weeks studying his team as they rotate from one hitting cage to the next, working on different skills. The Spartans also take part in various fielding and position drills at the Duffy Daugherty Football Building.
With the team kicking off a new season against Furman on Friday in Greenville, S.C., Boss has few other options.
The Spartans open with their first 17 games on the road, hitting locations in South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and California before returning to East Lansing. The first home game of the year takes place against Oakland on March 22, which kicks off the first of a five-game homestand.
Until then, the focus for Boss is trying to keep his team fresh before departing for South Carolina on Thursday.
“You try to mix things up as far as what we do in practice,” he said. “You try to do a different part of the game every day as far as team drills and have as much variety as possible. At the end of the day, it’s still turf and we’re not on the field. We’re stuck in the cages.
“As good as facilities as we have, it’s still not like
Even after losing senior ace Tony Bucciferro, the Spartans return one of the Big Ten’s deepest starting rotations for the 2013 season.
Led by senior co-captain Andrew Waszak, the Spartans could prove difficult in a weekend series with the three-headed monster of Waszak, junior David Garner and sophomore Mick VanVossen. The trio combined to win 14 games a season ago while logging more than 226 accumulative innings.
“Our three weekend starters are outstanding,” Boss said. “Andrew’s taken the logical progression since his freshman year and has really earned that Friday spot. David Garner’s as talented a guy as there is in the conference; or the Midwest or even the nation. Mick had a great freshman year and similar to Waszak’s freshman year, he’ll be able to take that same progression Andrew did.”
Garner is drawing heavy praise from Boss, who said the junior is as talented a player as he’s ever had in the program. The Niles, Mich., native finished the 2012 season with a 6-3 record and 3.28 earned run average in 74 innings of work.
Moving into his third year with the program, Garner said he’s ready to fulfill any role the team needs for him, even if it means he’s a second ace.
“Andrew is a great pitcher and I’ve learned a lot from him,” Garner said. “I think being able to see the game a day before being the Saturday guy (means) a lot. I feel like I’m capable of pitching Friday, Saturday or whenever they need me to pitch.”
The success of many collegiate athletic programs comes in retooling as opposed to rebuilding in the loss of talented players. And with a combination of fresh faces and familiar ones, the Spartans again have retooled for a run at the Big Ten championship.
Sophomore infielder Ryan Richardson will replace departed senior Justin Scanlon at shortstop, sophomore Kevin Goergen and freshman P.J. Nowak will compete for time at second base and former catcher John Martinez is moving to third base to fill another hole.
The team returns senior outfielder and All-Big Ten selection Jordan Keur, along with sophomores Anthony Cheky and Jimmy Pickens to round out the outfield. Keur led the team a season ago with a 0.353 batting average and finished second in the conference in hits with 89.
After having to fill gaps in the past, Jake Boss Jr. said he expects several players to take a step in replacing guys who have left the program.
“I would think that we’d be able to step in and fill some of those holes,” Boss said. “There were points in last year’s season where we were starting four or five freshmen. All those guys now are sophomores, and kind of like Mick, we’re hoping those guys can take the next step and contribute. A lot of young guys got a lot at bats a year ago and hopefully they’re a little more seasoned now.”
The team touts an impressive sophomore class, which includes Cheky, Pickens, first baseman Ryan Krill and catcher/designated hitter Blaise Salter, among others.
Salter said the group likely will provide a seasoned presence in a lineup decimated by losses, which only could bolster the team’s postseason aspirations.
“I think guys are capable of doing a good job of fitting in well with our offense and defense but you never know,” Salter said. “Things change when you get outside but I don’t think it will be a big drop off.”