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Column: Getting hot at the right time not overrated

May 20, 2012

It doesn’t take much for Jake Boss Jr. and the MSU baseball team to get excited about this time of year.

Behind the conference’s top pitching staff led by senior Tony Bucciferro and the consistent bats of juniors second baseman Ryan Jones and outfielder Jordan Keur, the Spartans find themselves just days away from the opening of the Big Ten Tournament. Despite missing out on a top seed and a first-round bye in the conference tournament, the No. 5-seeded Spartans (35-19 overall, 13-11 Big Ten) are set for a 12:05 p.m. matchup with No. 4-seed Nebraska on Wednesday at Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio.

But with the way last year’s season ended, this tournament is especially personal for the Spartans this time around.

A season ago, the Spartans lost to top-seeded Illinois and were forced to climb back to the title game through the loser’s side of the bracket. Though later reaching the championship game — where they fell to the Fighting Illini once more, 9-1 — the Spartans remained hopeful of an opportunity to play on with an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

The Fighting Illini earned the only Big Ten slot in the NCAA Tournament with an automatic bid, as MSU was kept at home. With that experience in mind, the Spartans understand the implications of their performance in the conference tournament and will have to rise to the occasion to extend the postseason.

“We wanted to have some momentum going into the tournament,” Boss said. “You know, you still never know what can happen with the (NCAA) Tournament selection, and we needed the win (Saturday) to keep our RPI high enough. We’re going to have to play well in the tournament to continue playing.”

According to the NCAA’s baseball RPI ratings last updated on Tuesday, MSU’s RPI sits at 48, with 64 teams earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament. However, it’s likely to dip into the mid-50s after a pair of losses to Penn State this weekend, leaving the fate of making the NCAA Tournament up to chance.

It’s not to say that there isn’t a chance; they obviously could get an at-large berth based on strength of schedule and the quality wins on their résumé. But outside of winning the Big Ten Tournament, nothing is for certain.

To get to the Big Dance, the Spartans need to put together the pieces that have carried them for most of the season.

After several years in the program, Bucciferro (5-3, 2.94 ERA) and junior pitcher Andrew Waszak (4-3, 2.64 ERA) have proven they have the type of arms to carry MSU as far it wants to go. Sophomore David Garner has surprised many this season with a 5-3 record and a 3.46 ERA, which only can benefit the team’s pitching depth with others such as sophomore Mike Theodore waiting in the wings.

Outside of Jones, Keur and junior third baseman Torsten Boss, consistency at the plate has been hard to find for the Spartans this season, with as many as three freshmen starting on any given day. Even with the third-best team batting average in the conference, the Spartans have struggled, at times, to generate offense in games they likely should win.

But in remembering the lessons of a season ago, Jones said if the Spartans can get hot at the right time, they should be a force to be reckoned with.

“We knew we needed to get hot at the right time,” Jones said. “Whoever’s hot right now is going to win the tourney. Illinois proved that last year, and we’re hoping to prove that this year.”

Dillon Davis is the sports and features editor at The State News. He can be reached at davisdi4@msu.edu.

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