For the first time in years, the four-game baseball series between MSU and Michigan has some meaning.
MSU (23-8 overall, 6-5 Big Ten) and U-M (11-19, 6-6) are currently in fifth and sixth place, respectively in the conference. The significance: Only the top six teams in the conference are invited to the Big Ten Tournament.
This is the first year in five or six years that this game has actually meant something toward the Big Ten Tournament, sophomore pitcher Bryan Gale said. The first game is always the big one. If we take that first game, we have a really good chance to take three out of four and even go for the sweep.
Senior center fielder Chris McCuiston said its a must-win Big Ten series, with the in-state rivalry providing more of an incentive.
I think everyones adrenaline is going to be pumping, McCuiston said. I think everyone looks at this weekend a little differently. Its going to be huge for us to win three and maybe possibly sweep four to keep us in the race, in the top six, and in the hunt for the Big Ten playoffs.
In looking for the sweep, MSU will be relying on its mighty bats. The Spartans are the fourth-best hitting team in the nation (.355 team batting average), topping the Big Ten in slugging percentage (.606). MSU also has crushed 62 home runs, doubling the Big Tens second-place squad.
Looking at the way they swing the bat, theyre just going to get some hits, Wolverine manager Chris Harrison said. You are not going to keep guys like (junior right fielder) Bobby Malek and their other guys quiet for the entire weekend. We are just going to have to play great defense and have solid pitching on the mound.
A year ago, the Spartans took three of four from the Wolverines. U-M barely snuck into the conference tournament because of the the Spartans, who last made the conference tournament in 1994.
I know theyre going to be ready to play us and looking for payback, Malek said. Last year we were all fired up and pumped to play, and we won three out of four and we kind of took it to them.
A lot has changed in the rivalry, like Spartan manager Ted Mahan, who was an assistant at U-M from 1988-91. Mahan said this years matchup highlights two very different teams, yet he insists both are evenly matched.
I think Michigan is playing very well right now, Mahan said. They have outstanding junior and senior pitchers.
Somebody is going to have to play very well to win three out of four. I dont care what our record is, what matters is what it is in the conference and in the conference, were almost dead even with them.
The right-handed Gale (4-2, 4.88 ERA) will take the mound Friday for the Spartans, while senior right-hander Nick Bates (7-1, 2.56) is slated to get the start in Saturdays first game. Going up against Gale on Friday will be Wolverine right-hander Bobby Korecky (2-4, 4.35), while Rich Hill (2-3, 3.21) goes against Bates.
Freshman right-hander Tim Day (6-2, 4.75) will get the nod in the second game Saturday. Mahan will wait to announce Sundays starter until game time.
Regardless of whos pitching for the Spartans, Malek is confident his pitchers will get the job done, leaving the challenge up to the Spartan hitters.
Its going to be a good battle between their pitchers and our hitters, Malek said. And Im confident were gonna come out ahead this year.
Bates made it clear the Spartans not only want to win, but rather, they need to win.
We need to go out there and take care of business and do what we can, and take these games, Bates said. We need to win this series, and to put ourselves in a good position to kind of lay in there and then make a late stride at Ohio State and edge them out for the (Big Ten) title.