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Column: Baseball team bound to fail if hits keep lacking

April 8, 2012
Junior infielder Ryan Jones makes a bat on one of his five appearances at bat on Saturday afternoon at McLane Baseball Stadium at Old College Field during the second of the three-game series against Michigan, which he had no run. The team fell to the Wolverines on Saturday afternoon by 4-3. Justin Wan/The State News
Junior infielder Ryan Jones makes a bat on one of his five appearances at bat on Saturday afternoon at McLane Baseball Stadium at Old College Field during the second of the three-game series against Michigan, which he had no run. The team fell to the Wolverines on Saturday afternoon by 4-3. Justin Wan/The State News

The MSU baseball team has assembled a pitching core to compete with any team in the nation. But great pitching is useless without offensive support. Jake Boss Jr. acknowledges that this much is true.

But as the Spartans found out this weekend, there’s a fine line between the theory of scoring runs and the literal production of them.

The Spartans squandered 22 combined hits in two losses to Michigan this weekend by not being able to capitalize with runners on base. Despite respectable pitching performances by senior Tony Bucciferro and junior Andrew Waszak, MSU left 34 runners on base in the series and finished on the losing side of the box score twice.

That’s 34 times when the Spartans had a chance for offense with runners on base and instead of scoring or doing something mildly productive, did nothing at all. Yikes.

The Spartans have wasted plenty of opportunities at the plate this season, and it has become clearer than ever that without offensive execution, this team will fail.

“If we don’t execute, we don’t win, and that’s the bottom line,” Boss said following Saturday’s loss. “If we don’t execute at the plate, if we don’t execute defensively when we have a chance to, if we don’t execute on the bases, if we don’t execute offensively, it’s a pretty easy formula. You’re not gonna win many games.”

As the lights dimmed on the 2011 campaign after a loss in the Big Ten Tournament on a warm evening in May, Boss was well aware of the challenges his team faced without the production of first baseman Jeff Holm and center fielder Brandon Eckerle.

Eckerle and Holm combined for 181 hits, 104 runs scored and 80 RBIs during the 2011 season, including carrying a combined average north of .370. The duo anchored the team to its first Big Ten championship since 1979 and raised the bar of what is expected from Boss and his program.

Without Eckerle and Holm, the weight of the offense has fallen on junior left fielder Jordan Keur, junior second baseman Ryan Jones and a host of freshmen including center fielder Anthony Cheky and catcher Blaise Salter.

Even with a respectable output good enough to secure the Spartans as the fourth-best offensive team in the Big Ten, the challenge for Boss remains the same as it has the whole season — replacing MSU’s all-time hits leader and its reigning Big Ten Player of the Year at the top of the lineup.

“I feel it’s with our approach,” Salter said. “Sometimes, (we’re) out in front of pitches. We’re trying to drive balls in the gap whereas with a runner on third, you have to do whatever to get them in.”

With much of the season still ahead of them, the Spartans still have time to recover on offense. There’s room for each player to mature and grow with plenty left to accomplish.

After all, there’s a learning curve for most teams with freshmen in the lineup.

But for Boss and company, building offensive momentum starts with the mentality of looking to score runs, rather than padding personal statistics.

“Everbody’s had a chance — it’s a mental thing,” Boss said.

“We still guess at the plate; we still lack aggressiveness at the plate. It’s no secret formula. In college baseball with the aluminum bats, you have to be aggressive with runners in scoring position. … For whatever reason, we don’t do that.”

If the Spartans hope to repeat as conference champions and earn a berth to the NCAA Tournament, that has to change.

Dillon Davis is a baseball reporter for The State News. He can be reached at davisdi4@msu.edu.

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