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Column: With pitching, team needs to be hot at plate

April 2, 2012

Nearing the midway point of the baseball season, head coach Jake Boss Jr. has grown certain of the strength of this year’s ball club — the pitching.

In the first two games of a three-game weekend series against Ohio State, senior Tony Bucciferro and junior Andrew Waszak combined to surrender just a single run in 16 innings of work, picking up a no decision and a win, respectively.

Even when sophomore Mike Theodore got shelled for five runs in four innings in the third game, sophomore Jeff Kinley came on in relief and finished the game, allowing just two hits the rest of the way to guide the Spartans to a 10-5 victory in a shootout on Monday at McLane Baseball Stadium at Old College Field.

“Those guys have really thrown well (all season),” Boss said. “Mike got a little loose in the zone; I think (he) got behind in the count a little bit today and ended up getting knocked around. But Jeff Kinley came in and really threw great. Our bullpen has been really, really good all year, too. We feel good that if our starter can’t get deep into the game, when we have a full pen, we feel good with what our chances are.”

As of March 30, the Spartans rank among the top 25 teams in the nation with a combined team-earned run average of 2.82, which is good for the top spot in the Big Ten and is 35 spots higher than the next best team in the conference (Minnesota, 3.33).

Since Bucciferro outdueled 6-foot-8, 215-pound preseason All-American Kyle Hansen of then-No. 11 St. John’s on opening day in Dunedin, Fla., strong pitching performances have been at a premium among the Big Ten’s strongest pitching core.

The offense, on the other hand, has been another story.

Coming into the weekend series, the Spartans haven’t inspired much hope on offense, owning the nation’s 130th best batting average (.278) and ranking 116th in on base percentage (.367). With the loss of MSU’s all-time hits leader Brandon Eckerle and reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Jeff Holm and starting up to three freshmen on any given day, there’s been a bit of a learning curve to this point.

But in the rubber match with the Buckeyes on Monday afternoon, it was the offense who flipped the script on what has been a fairly anemic season.

The Spartans tallied 13 hits on the day, including multiple-hit games by junior second baseman Ryan Jones, junior left fielder Jordan Keur, junior right fielder Tony Wieber and senior shortstop Justin Scanlon. Jones and Wieber also knocked in three runs apiece on Monday to ignite the Spartans’ offense at the top of the lineup.

“We have been a little slow the past couple days,” Jones said of the team’s performance at the plate. “But to come out in the first and get base runners right off the bat — we had some big key hits early on and even late in that inning. It helps getting off to that big lead and just coasting from there.”

With the first weekend of the Big Ten season in its rearview mirror, the Spartans realize that the difference between repeating as conference champion for the first time in the program’s history and fading into obscurity hangs on the ability to string together consistent hitting performances together.

And for the guys toeing the rubber, having the offense come around definitely isn’t a bad thing.

“It just takes a lot off of your shoulders,” Kinley said. “You’re feeling a lot more pressure with one-run, two-run leads. It just gives you more confidence, and you feel more easygoing.”

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

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