Tuesday, June 18, 2024

MSU baseball off to historic start, sets sights on postseason run

April 17, 2016
Junior infielder Jordan Zimmerman high fives head coach Jake Boss Jr. after scoring a run during the game against Central Michigan on April 14, 2016 at Comerica Park in Detroit. The Spartans defeated the Chippewas, 7-3.
Junior infielder Jordan Zimmerman high fives head coach Jake Boss Jr. after scoring a run during the game against Central Michigan on April 14, 2016 at Comerica Park in Detroit. The Spartans defeated the Chippewas, 7-3.

MSU baseball got off to its best start in program history with a 14-1 record through March 18, and it now sits at 25-7, 7-2 Big Ten halfway through the season, leading the conference standings. The Spartans, who were picked to finish sixth in the conference in the Big Ten preseason coaches poll, are currently ranked 30th in the NCAA RPI and the University of Minnesota is the only Big Ten team ranked ahead of them at 19th.

Coming into the past weekend, the Spartans were 23-6 on the season — the best in school history through 29 games since the 1971 team started the season 24-5. This season is head coach Jake Boss Jr.’s best while at the helm of the Spartans, the next best coming in 2011 when they started the season 21-8. The Spartans won Big Ten titles in both 1971 and 2011, and if history stands to repeat itself MSU could be en route to another Big Ten championship.

MSU started the season 6-0 before losing its first game of the year in a 2-0 loss to Southern Mississippi on March 4. The Spartans went on to win eight of their next ten games, including games against Auburn, Florida Gulf Coast and University of South Florida. In-state opponents have been somewhat of a thorn in the Spartans’ side this season, as MSU is 3-2 against schools in the state of Michigan, the two losses coming from Oakland University and Eastern Michigan University.

Although the Spartans have played more than 30 games this season, the team has had to fight against weather ailments. The Spartans had two games canceled in early April against University of Oregon because of snow and the annual Crosstown Showdown exhibition against the Lansing Lugnuts was postponed because of heavy rain.

Coming into this season, Boss and his staff knew the Spartans had a talented pitching staff, but the biggest question mark the team faced was its ability to create offensive production. However, the MSU offensive lineup has answered those question marks.

The Spartans rank among the best in many offensive statistical categories in the Big Ten. MSU ranks second in the conference with a .311 batting average. The Spartans also rank among the best in the conference in both slugging and on-base percentage.

One of MSU’s biggest offensive weapons has come from the arrival of junior infielder Jordan Zimmerman. Zimmerman is playing in his first season with the Spartans after transferring from Mesa Community College in Mesa, Ariz. The 6-foot-1 slugger is leading the conference with a .427 batting average, while hitting from the No. 2 spot in the Spartans’ lineup. Zimmerman is leading the team in runs, hits, extra-base hits, on-base percentage and stolen bases. To top it all off, Zimmerman went on a 21-game hitting streak, which was recently snapped when he went 0-for-4 against Central Michigan University at the Clash at Comerica this past Wednesday.

“Success for this team has been on everyone,” Zimmerman said. “The pitching has been outstanding and the hitting has been above what we thought it would be.”

The heart of MSU’s lineup has also provided a lot of offensive depth this season. The team’s three-through-six batters in the lineup are hitting a combined .332 on the season, with 24 extra-base hits and 67 RBI’s. MSU has been able to maintain offensive production despite injuries to sophomore utility player Alex Troop, who was hitting .372 on the season before he broke a bone in his hand against Butler on March 11, and junior catcher Chad Roskelly, who has missed regular playing time all season because of a knee injury.

“We’re all competitors on this team,” freshman utility player Marty Bechina said. “We’re all buying into what we’re being taught. We worked hard in the offseason and it’s nice to see it come together.”

The biggest reason the Spartans were unsure of their offensive ability coming into this season was because of the arrival of 12 new players on the roster. MSU currently has seven freshmen on the roster with two of them, Bechina and shortstop Royce Ando, regular starters for the Spartans. The other five players found their way to MSU via transferring.

Bechina has taken the role of the leadoff man for the Spartans. The Chicago, Ill. native has started all 32 games this season for the Spartans, hitting .276 this season in 134 at bats. Ando has been the other freshman who has earned playing time as MSU’s starting shortstop under Boss. This season, Ando has started in 28 games for the Spartans while hitting .227 and has racked up 25 hits thus far.

Apart from Zimmerman, the Spartans have also enjoyed the company of other transfer students — one of those being Ethan Landon. Landon is a redshirt-sophomore who transferred to MSU from Kansas State. Landon has earned himself a starting spot in the pitching rotation at the start of the season and in nine appearances has started nine games for MSU to earn a 4-1 record with a 2.35 ERA.

The heart of MSU’s offensive lineup consists mostly of transfer students. Senior outfielder Kris Simonton arrived this season from the University of Akron and is hitting .314 in 29 games. Junior outfielder Taylor Grace is a native to Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. and went to Citrus College — he is hitting .292 through 18 games and has filled in as the primary starter since Alex Troop went down with his hand injury. The final transfer student, junior catcher Matt Byars, is from Heartland Community College. Byars is hitting .304 through 31 games and has taken over as the starting catcher since Roskelly was sidelined.

Now that the baseball season is more than halfway over, the playoff picture is becoming much more clear. With only 21 games left in the season, 15 are against Big Ten opponents and nine of those games are against Indiana, University of Michigan and Nebraska, teams that are currently second, third and fifth place in the conference standings.

“This group has a lot of character,” Boss said. “They just keep fighting, clawing and competing. We talked about it since September, we compete for each other and we compete for Michigan State.”

"This group has a lot of character. They just keep fighting, clawing and competing. We talked about it since September, we compete for each other and we compete for Michigan State."

Last season, the Spartans finished the season 34-23 overall and 14-10 in conference play to earn the No. 5-seed in the Big Ten. MSU was ousted after three games in the Big Ten Tournament with losses to Maryland and Illinois. Once the NCAA Tournament rolled around, the Spartans watched on selection day only to miss the tournament.

“We’d love to get to the postseason,” sophomore outfielder Brandon Hughes said. “We thought we got snubbed last year so now we’re giving it all we’ve got.”

Since then, the Spartans have used last year as a learning experience and a tool for motivation to finish the season off with a bang.

“That was a tough feeling, being left out,” junior closer Joe Mockbee said. “But I think it was a good feeling, too. You can learn from it, bounce back from it and get even better from it. Nobody on this team wants to feel like that again and it’s something that makes us want to work harder every single day.”

MSU will get back to action on Tuesday against Notre Dame, with first pitch set for 3:05 p.m.

“This team is just different,” Mockbee said. “This team won’t ever give up, they’ll fight until the end of the game even when we’re losing by 10. ... I think this group is just so close with each other, everyone gets along, everyone wants to succeed and compete and win as many games as possible.”

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