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Take me out to Columbus

MSU baseball team seeks redemption from last season's Big Ten Tournament loss

May 21, 2012

Head coach Jake Boss Jr. and outfielder Tony Wieber discuss the upcoming tournament.

Photo by Julia Nagy | The State News

As captivating off the field as he is dominant on the mound, Tony Bucciferro has seen everything in his MSU baseball career. Well, almost everything.

Even with a spectrum of work that includes pitching the Spartans to the Big Ten championship a season ago and broaching several school records — including MSU’s all-time innings-pitched mark — the senior pitcher still has a glaring hole on his résumé — a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Not to feel badly, as he is one of more than three decades of Spartans not to earn a trip to the Big Dance — the last coming in 1979 — Bucciferro has the opportunity to fill that gap for himself and end a drought that started before he was born.

The journey begins this week, as the No. 5-seeded Spartans (35-19 overall, 13-11 Big Ten) take on No. 4-seed Nebraska starting at 12:05 p.m. Wednesday in the Big Ten Tournament.

As he has all season, Bucciferro (5-3, 2.94 ERA) will take the ball to set the pace in the opening game for the Spartans. But like never before, Bucciferro knows the implication of his performance against the Cornhuskers (34-21, 14-10) at Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio, likely stands between his team and a chance to play deep into the postseason.

“Our mindset is just win it,” Bucciferro said. “There’s been a lot of talk about regional bids — at-large regional bids — and that’s not going to happen now unless we go on a run and/or win it. That’s our mindset. We know what we have to do, and we’re going to come out and play as hard as we can, and hopefully, it will all work out.”

Welcome to Heartbreak
Ryan Jones is no stranger to the big stage.

In the past year alone, the junior second baseman has clashed with Central Michigan at Comerica Park in Detroit, taken a trip across town for a showdown with the Lansing Lugnuts at Cooley Law School Stadium in Lansing and even chased a Big Ten Tournament title in Columbus.

Unfortunately, his memories of Huntington Park aren’t nearly as fond as the others.

A season ago, the then-sophomore was part of the co-Big Ten champion Spartans, as they traveled to the conference tournament with a No. 2 seed and found themselves among the favorites. But a pair of losses to top-seeded Illinois — including a 9-1 walloping in the title game — dashed the hopes of Jones and the Spartans, effectively ending their season.
But for Jones, this year is different.

“It was very heartbreaking last year, knowing we had such a great year, and that it came down to (the fact that) we had to win the Big Ten tourney to get to the NCAA tourney,” Jones said. “Things have changed this year. We got a better RPI, we got a shot to do some things if we don’t win it. We got to put up a good showing in the first game and keep rolling from there.”

With last year’s losses in mind, head coach Jake Boss Jr. said his team carries something of a grudge heading into the Big Ten Tournament. Even though the Spartans enter as one of the lower seeds of the tournament, Boss said playing on the big stage heightens senses knowing what’s all at stake.

“Everything seems to be a little bit more important in these tournament types of settings, where if you get yourself in the loser’s bracket, it’s tough to win the whole thing, especially if you get in that loser’s bracket early,” Boss said. If you’re in an elimination game, one play, one pitch, one hitter or an error made can make the difference, so it kind of helps tighten the focus a little bit.”

The Good Life
Earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament isn’t easy. According to Boss, the challenge is even steeper for teams who play in the north, such as MSU.

“If you put our school 500 or 1,000 miles south, (we’d) probably (be in),” Boss said. “That’s the reality of college baseball and college baseball in the north. So we have to do a little bit more than other schools. It’s a challenge, but it’s what we all signed up for, and we all know what it’s all about.”

That being the case, winning the Big Ten Tournament makes the road a little bit easier, Boss said.

“Four wins will win the tournament for us, so that’s one of the ways (to get in),” he said. “We’ve put ourselves in this situation where we’re kind of in limbo, so you’d like to think the more wins we get, the better chance we have.”

Even though he didn’t experience the losses of a season ago, freshman designated hitter Blaise Salter — in high school at the time — is hungry for an NCAA Tournament bid. Already with the mentality to win it all, Salter said the Spartans have plenty to prove and are confident of their chances in the Big Ten Tournament.

“We’re going down there with a chip on our shoulder with what happened last year — I mean, I wasn’t on the team last year — but from what happened last year down there and their not winning the tournament and not getting an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament,” Salter said. “We’re going to go down there confident because we all know that if we play our game (and) do the right things, good things are going to happen.”

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