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Baseball has met expectations, looks forward to postseason

May 18, 2016
The Spartans huddle together before the game against Nebraska on May 9, 2016 at McLane Stadium. The Spartans were defeated by the Cornhuskers, 7-4.
The Spartans huddle together before the game against Nebraska on May 9, 2016 at McLane Stadium. The Spartans were defeated by the Cornhuskers, 7-4. —
Photo by Carly Geraci | and Carly Geraci The State News

Through hard work and grit, the MSU baseball team has shined at points in the season. The Spartans have shown both streaks of brilliance and signs of concern for head coach Jake Boss Jr. The Spartans regular season is beginning to come to a close and the Big Ten Tournament moves ever closer with only three games left in the regular season.

Meeting expectations

Even before the baseball season started, the Spartans were predicted to finish sixth in the conference in the Big Ten preseason coaches poll. MSU has played consistently good baseball all season long and has been among the top in the Big Ten doing so.

Coming into the spring, MSU’s biggest question mark was with offensive capabilities, but through 49 games this season, the Spartans are hitting from a .290 team batting average, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten. MSU also ranks in the top five in the Big Ten in other statistical categories such as 486 total hits, good for fourth in the conference. Spartan batters have the fewest strikeouts in the conference with only 286 strikeouts this season.

Boss has also had the luxury of a top-of-the-conference pitching staff at his disposal; MSU is arguably the best in the Big Ten in that regards. The Spartan pitchers have a Big Ten-best collective ERA of 2.64. Runs have come at a premium this season for opponents of MSU with only having allowed 130 earned runs while also striking out 408 batters this season.

“This group has a lot of character,” Boss said. “From day one they’ve kept fighting, clawing and competing. We compete for each other, and we compete for Michigan State. We pick ourselves up, and when some guy isn’t getting it done, we have another guy to pick up the slack.”

Filling voids

Even with the absence of sophomore first baseman and pitcher Alex Troop, who went down with a broken bone in his hand, the Spartans have had a solid nucleus of talent.

One of the biggest offensive threats for MSU all season has been from junior transfer student Jordan Zimmerman. The second-baseman-turned-first-baseman has been one of the best hitters in the entire country this year, with a .394 batting average, 74 hits and 33 runs batted in this season.

Apart from Zimmerman, junior second baseman Dan Durkin and sophomore center fielder Brandon Hughes have been reliable hitters. Both Durkin and Hughes have started over 40 games for MSU with Durkin hitting a .326 batting average and Hughes hitting a .300 batting average this season. Both hitters have hit at the top of MSU’s order and have combined for 112 hits, 63 runs and 56 runs batted in. Hughes is currently leading the Spartans with 14 stolen bases.

Other MSU sluggers that have made an impact this season include junior catcher Matt Byars and freshman outfielder Marty Bechina. Like Zimmerman, Byars is a transfer student and has found himself in the starting catcher’s role after filling in for injured sophomore catcher Chad Roskelly. Both hitters have started nearly every game for MSU with Byars hitting a .303 batting average and Bechina hitting a .269 batting average in his first collegiate season.

On the mound nearly every starting pitcher has been lights out this year, especially weekend starters Cam Vieaux and Ethan Landon. Vieaux has led MSU the entire season as the ace of the staff — Vieaux is 6-2 on the year and ranks second in the conference with a 2.31 ERA and 75 strikeouts. Landon has been solid as well with a 7-2 record of his own as well as 49 stikeouts and a 2.47 ERA.

MSU’s bullpen has been one of the best in the nation, largely because of the breakout season of sophomore pitcher Dakota Mekkes. Mekkes is 2-1 this year with a stellar 1.52 ERA. The sophomore has racked up a whopping 83 strikeouts in only 47.1 innings of work.

Making moves on the fly

On top of MSU’s most reliable contributors all season long, Boss has shaken things up as of late and has allowed for other players to find a role on the team and make as big an impact as possible.

In recent games, sophomore designated hitter Zack McGuire has helped drive in key runs in games against Toledo, Michigan, Nebraska and Iowa. McGuire started the season in the starting lineup but was benched after hitting only .158 through six games. Recently, however, McGuire has been on a tear.

“I haven’t been in there a lot,” McGuire said. “Getting in there I am just trying to get some stuff back and hit hard and get stuff up in the zone and compete to try and help the ball club. We have a lot of really good hitters on this team, but right now I’m being called upon so I’m just trying to do my job.”

Freshman outfielder Dan Chmielewski has also been red-hot since being placed in the starting lineup. Since April 29 Chmielewski has scored six runs including a couple of runs to propel MSU past Michigan in a crucial conference series in which the Spartans took two of three from their in-state rival.

Junior pitchers Walter Borkovich and Joe Mockbee have adjusted to roll changes in the middle of the season. Borkovich began the season in the starting rotation but has since been replaced by Mockbee, and the two have excelled in their new roles. Since moving to the bullpen on April 22 against Indiana, Borkovich has only allowed only one earned run in 12 innings of work. Since joining the rotation, Mockbee is 2-1 with a 3.0 ERA and 50 strikeouts.

“That’s just how our team is built,” Mockbee said. “We’re going to stay in every single inning, we’re going to keep battling until we get on top, and once we get on top we’re going burry them and be ourselves and win it.”

There’s still work to be done

With both the Big Ten Tournament and the College World Series looming, the Spartans are primed to make a statement in the postseason. MSU has defied their critics and has stayed near the top of the conference standings all season long. Currently, MSU is only three wins out of first place, with Minnesota in first place.

“We’re scratching and clawing to stay where we’re at,” Boss said. “And at this point we can’t really look at the standings, we don’t play Minnesota so we can’t do anything about that, all we can really do is concern ourselves with tomorrow and take each contest one game at a time.”

MSU has proven that they can compete with some of the best teams in the country, after taking two of three from a ranked Michigan team, and a 12-9 conference record. The key for the Spartans as the postseason approaches will be offensive consistency. The Spartans have proven their pitching staff is one of the most elite in the conference, and their offense can be just as potent at times; however, if sluggers like Zimmerman, Durkin and Hughes are kept under wraps, MSU will have a difficult time scoring runs when they count the most.

“The goal every weekend is to win the series,” Boss said. “That doesn’t change regardless of who we’re playing... We need to execute on the mound, we need to have a good approach and a good plan at the plate, and have the mental approach to stick to that. If we’re able to do that, this ball club has proven that good things will happen.”

The Spartans will host the Maryland Terrapins for a three game weekend series to conclude the regular season. The Terrapins will come to McLane Baseball Stadium with a 26-24 overall record and an 11-10 conference record, which sets them at 7th place in the Big Ten standings. Only the top eight teams in the Big Ten compete in the Big Ten Baseball Tournament.

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