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Spartans head to Big Ten baseball tournament after win against Terrapins

May 20, 2016
The Spartans hug and high five one another before the game against Nebraska on May 7, 2016 at McLane Stadium.  The Spartans were defeated by the Cornhuskers , 6-3.
The Spartans hug and high five one another before the game against Nebraska on May 7, 2016 at McLane Stadium. The Spartans were defeated by the Cornhuskers , 6-3. —
Photo by Carly Geraci | and Carly Geraci The State News

While the Spartans still have one game remaining in the regular season, the win against the in-conference Maryland Terrapins sealed the Spartans a spot in the Big Ten baseball tournament for the third straight year.

Despite a four-game losing streak, the Michigan State Spartans clinched their spot with several clutch performances.

Catcher Matt Byars came up when the Spartans needed it the most. Tied 3-3 in 13th inning with the bases loaded and one out, Byars connected with a ball perfectly for a deep sacrifice fly. Brandon Hughes came in from third to score, and his teammates all swarmed to Byars, punching him and spraying him with water.

“It feels good, but at the same time, it hurts a little bit,” Byars said about hitting his second career walk-off. “They’re kind of beating me up down there. I got soaked by water; that’s a big thing on our team. Guys grab water bottles and soak me and try to rip my jersey off. I just kind of put myself into a ball until it’s all over.”

Michigan State’s pitching was resolute, once again. The Spartans are fourth in the nation for ERA, and it was a team effort to limit Maryland for as long as they did.

The clear standout in that category, however, was the closer, Dakota Mekkes. He came in for the eighth inning to close the game but earned his stay until the game was finished, pitching six scoreless innings of one-hit ball and accruing 93 pitches.

“I’m always ready to go as many innings as I need to,” Mekkes said.

The game was level until the bottom of the second inning, when Chris Chmielewski made it home from third following a fielding error from Maryland’s third baseman, Andrew Bechtold. Chmielewski initially reached the base after a hearty bumper was fumbled and misthrown by Bechtold at the start of the inning.

Maryland answered in the next frame, as leadoff hitter Anthony Papio redirected a ball far to right field. The ball hit the high fencing above the Michigan State retired numbers and stayed in play, but hung up long enough for Papio to reach third. He was driven in two batters later by Nick Dunn, who streaked one into shallow right.

At the top of the fifth, Maryland took the lead for the first time in the game, as Papio singled a liner to the gap in left field. Bechtold had a good leadoff from second base and was able to trot home without a play at the plate.

It could have easily been worse for the Spartans in the fifth, as Maryland stranded a full house with runners at first, second and third. Pitcher Joe Mockbee was pulled after four and two-thirds innings of six-hit, two-run pitching. Jake Lowery assumed the mound and, after giving up an infield single, forced a crucial high and short popup to shortstop Royce Ando to end the inning.

It looked as if the Spartans would answer at the bottom of the inning, but Ando’s suicide squeeze went wrong when Bechtold, the Maryland third baseman, made an instinctive and vigorous diving play on the ball, dumped just 12 feet down the line. As Ando was out from the midair catch, Marty Bechina was caught sprinting home, assuming that the ball would land. The Terrapins easily touched third base first, with Bechina already displaced close to home plate. Maryland escaped the inning unscathed with a 2-1 lead.

It was a faithful seventh inning for the Spartans, however, as both Justin Hovis and Kory Young scored, putting the Spartans up 3-2. After Hovis hit a singl and advanced to second on a throwing era from Dunn, he was called home when pinch hitter Zack McGuire singled to shortstop Kevin Smith, who lost the ball attempting a diving stop. Hovis made it home and McGuire reached second on the play. No error was awarded.

McGuire was then substituted for Young. Brandon Hughes' first-pitch hit Taylor Bloom for a single, forcing Bloom’s first earned run of the game. Hughes stole second and was taken to third following Jordan Zimmerman’s single to left field, the best hitter for MSU’s first of the game. However, Zimmerman was caught between first and second and Hughes gambled trying to simultaneously reach home, but he was tagged out at a bang-bang play at the base after a 1-3-6-1-2 sequence.

Quickly, Maryland tied it up once more, putting the game in gridlock that would last until the game ended. Madison Nickens replicated Papio’s triple in the third inning, with a deep shot right up the high fence that was two feet shy of exiting McLane. Mekkes entered the game and had first baseman, Kevin Biondic, roll out to shortstop, but the ball was slow-moving enough for Nickens to score. The game entered the bottom of the eighth inning tied for the third time, 3-3.

Extra innings had several close calls, but the tie was finally breached in the bottom of the 13th inning for the Spartans. After Hughes walked, Zimmerman wedged a ball into right field. A frenetic chase-down ensued, as Hughes slipped and fell while rounding second base yet managed to elude Bechtold’s reach and touch third before having his wrist taped.

“First thought was get up,” coach Jake Boss Jr. said about Hughes’ slip. “I thought it was great base-running trying to get from first to third there. He blew a tire somehow. And from there, he did what he was supposed to do.”

Then, Byars stepped up and sent the Spartans to the Big Ten tournament, giving Hughes a much easier assignment to cross the plate.

“I knew we had one out, so anything works,” Byars said. “(Boss Jr.) actually told me make sure I touch first if I hit a single, so that was pretty good."

With the win, the Spartans no longer have to anxiously watch the results of other teams. They are in the Big Ten tournament. But even with one game remaining, as the sun set on McLane, the regular season could not have came to a better conclusion.

“I mean, we always expect to make a tournament, so to win on a walk-off is really nice too,” Mekkes said.

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