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MSU baseball capitalizing on rapid start, looks to improve consistency

February 22, 2017
Freshman right handed pitcher Caleb Sleeman (38) pitches the ball during practice on Feb. 3, 2017 at McLane Baseball Stadium at John H. Kobs Field. The Spartans are preparing for opening day on Feb.17, 2017.
Freshman right handed pitcher Caleb Sleeman (38) pitches the ball during practice on Feb. 3, 2017 at McLane Baseball Stadium at John H. Kobs Field. The Spartans are preparing for opening day on Feb.17, 2017. —
Photo by Jon Famurewa | and Jon Famurewa The State News

It’s a similar script for head coach Jake Boss Jr. This time around, it’s just shorter — at least for now.

2017 started off with a bang for the Spartans, facing Abilene Christian University on its home turf four times during the weekend. There, they retired the Wildcats each time they stepped up to the challenge, similar to a pitcher throwing the early parts of a perfect game.

After the dust settled, the Spartans sat a perfect 4-0 on the young campaign, the only undefeated team left standing in the Big Ten.

“I’m very pleased with going 4-0,” Boss said. “I think at the same time, there’s a lot of things we need to get better at. Some of it may be opening weekend jitters or first time really being outside in a game situation.”

Flashing back to 2016, MSU blitzed out to a 14-1 mark. It was the closest any Spartan team had flirted with a perfect record to begin the season, representing a program-best start. The epitome of a high was upon MSU — one the Spartans came faltering down from.

As the season came to its end, it mercilessly left the Spartans behind as they finished with a 36-20 overall record. MSU fell short of its ultimate goal of snatching its first Big Ten championship trophy since 2011.

Following graduation and losing stars to the pros, a new script is in the midst of taking shape. Among the cast, senior infielder Dan Durkin figures to play a burgeoning role, especially after earning his first Big Ten Player of the Week award.

On the weekend, the Tinley Park, Ill. native batted a clean .500 while chipping in 11 RBI, a quarter of the whole team’s total.

“It’s good,” Durkin said. “It’s obviously a nice accomplishment to get, but a lot of guys on the team could’ve got it this week. We all hit pretty well.”

The Spartans came out of their opening weekend batting .401 as a team. In a sport where failing seven out of 10 times in the majors will make millions, the average is a staggering figure.

Whilst MSU recorded a total of 51 runs on the weekend, a newcomer wrecked havoc for the squad. Freshman outfielder Danny Gleaves burst onto the scene, spraying the ball around the field to the tune of a .524 average, scoring eight runs and collecting five RBI.

Kicking off his collegiate career, Gleaves initially started off batting No. 7 in Boss’ lineup. After noteworthy performances, the head coach said he moved the rookie to leadoff.

There, Gleaves excelled, batting 7-for-13 and collecting four of his five RBI from the series.

“Putting Danny at the top, he’s the type of player that can be a very dynamic leadoff hitter and he can make a lot of things happen on the bases,” Boss said. “He’s strong enough to hit for some power. He’s a very intelligent kid, very smart player.”

Boss praised the expanding depth his team featured, especially following some of the departures on his team. On his pitching staff, the Spartans trotted out 12 different pitchers to the mound through the weekend.

“It’s probably as talented as a group as we’ve had here since I’ve been at Michigan State,” Boss said. “I think you look at that roster, you could really go 12 or 13 guys deep. That’s a rarity in college baseball.”

Senior pitcher Joe Mockbee said throughout his time at MSU, this team’s staff is the best he’s ever seen.

“This pitching staff is unbelievable,” Mockbee said. “This is probably the best pitching staff I’ve ever been on … there are certain guys that didn’t throw that have enormous potential and are going to be huge parts of our staff.”

Despite the perfect record, Boss said the on-field product has been far from it. After committing seven errors on the weekend, Boss said defending will be a point of emphasis going forward.

“Defensively, I thought we would be better than we were,” Boss said. “I’m a little disappointed in the defense from last weekend, but long way to go. We’re going to need to get better in a hurry.”

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As the players start to assemble and fill the required roles, the Spartans will look to their seniors as a fixture of the team, Boss said.

“Your seniors need to be your best guys if you’re going to be a good ball club,” Boss said. “Our seniors I felt like were our best guys last weekend. Dan Durkin, really good. Joe Mockbee out of the bullpen was lights out. Walter Borkovich was outstanding. Those are the guys that are going to have to lead us and they did last weekend.”

After the sour taste of failing to reach its goals last season, MSU will look to eradicate the void come the impending 2017 season. While Mockbee said there would be some motivation to outdo last year’s historic start, there will be a specific emphasis on consistency.

“We set the bar high last year and kind of fell off at the end,” Mockbee said. “I think this year, our mindset is try to keep that whole pace we started last year and starting with this year and try to keep that pace the whole year, instead of kind of being an even-keeled team … we want to be a great team for the whole year instead of just the first 15 to 20 games.”

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