After finishing the 2019 campaign with their second consecutive 20-win season, Michigan State baseball is already starting to turn things around in 2020.
The Spartans (5-3) have already benefited from a less demanding non-conference schedule, winning games through a season-opening sweep of Morehead State and a dramatic 15-14 extra-innings win over Merrimack on Sunday. By racking up these early wins, they're already leaps and bounds ahead of a 2019 squad that didn't win their fifth game until April 2.
Coach Jake Boss Jr. said that an easier schedule has helped but the Spartans must continue to eke out wins in non-conference play.
"We've got a long way to go," he said. "I thought we were playing really good baseball at the end of the year and would have loved to play anybody at the end of the year, but at the beginning of the year last year, it wasn't the right setup for us and that's my fault. I make the schedule."
Junior right-handed pitcher Mason Erla, senior left-handed pitcher Jarret Olson and sophomore outfielder Zaid Walker were named to the 2020 Big Ten Preseason Honors list. Erla and Olson have found success early, pitching their way to 1.29 and 1.93 earned run averages respectively, while Walker currently sports a .182 batting average to start the year.
But it's been names left off the honors list that have jumped out of the box scores for MSU. In just eight games, senior infielder/outfielder Bailey Peterson has thrived in the two-spot, posting a remarkable .613 average and 1.441 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) for the best start to the season of anybody on the team.
After battling injuries last season, Peterson said that he's at the "most comfortable and healthiest" he's ever been at Michigan State.
“I just wanted to make sure that I maintained all the confidence that I had coming from summer ball ... where I played well (with the Westhampton Aviators) and I just wanted that to carry over into the fall and then into the spring," he said. "As long as I was healthy physically, I know what my capabilities are. ... So just being able to get off to a hot start, help a team go in there and compete every at-bat and be successful up to this point has been fun."
Boss said that the key to success for these underclassmen begins with them being level-headed towards everything that comes their way.
“I think with the young guys, especially Jack Frank, Dillon Kark, the freshmen, there’s always going to be a lot of ups and downs," he said. "You got to ride out the successes and you got to weather the storm when it goes bad. The freshmen that can seem to do that and stay a little bit more even keel when they hit a slump are usually the guys that have the most success. I think you got to be able to take a step back and learn from what’s happening and not get too caught up in 0-3 or 0-4 or whatever. It’s just about getting better.”
With returning and new talent, Michigan State is poised to grow from a team that finished last year with the worst offense in the Big Ten and ranked 290 out of 297 NCAA Division 1 programs in runs scored per game at 3.9. Peterson said that the Spartans' play thus far makes him believe that this team has the potential to do big things.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised all the way around, both offensively and defensively," Peterson said. "I think all of our pieces are starting to come together. And you know, as I mentioned before, when we’ve had games this year already where we’ve seen everything come together. … That would make me believe that we have the potential to win a Big Ten Championship.”
Boss said that it's better to be realistic but added that success can go a long in the sport.
“We’ve set a bunch of goals as a team, and I think they’re all attainable goals," he said. "And then, once you attain those goals, you reevaluate and you move forward but certainly getting to the Big Ten tournament is one of them.
“I don’t think we’re at a place right now where we can say our goal is to be a national champion,” he said. “At the same time, you get to (an NCAA regional) and you win a regional, you win a super regional, you get to Omaha, at that point, again, then that becomes the goal. As cliche as it is, you take it one step at a time and once you reach that first step, then you look more toward the next one.”