The return to the Mitten was picture-perfect for Michigan State baseball, as they beat Illinois 11-0 in their first game in the state of Michigan since May 2019.
The game was played at Michigan’s Ray Fisher Stadium as a part of the “pod play” weekend between the Spartans, Illini and Wolverines. Each team will play the others twice over a three-day period in the pod, which will be common in Big Ten play during the compressed season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Michigan State jumped out to an early 4-0 lead in the first inning and that proved to be enough for starting pitcher Mason Erla and the Spartans.
Zaid Walker, who won Big Ten Player of the Week the opening week of the year, hit a triple to drive in two runs, giving him eight RBIs on the year to add to his blistering start. The Spartans tacked on two more in the first, giving Erla more than enough insurance in his start.
“That first inning for sure set the tone for everything, kind of allowed Mason to settle into it and stay really aggressive,” Michigan State coach Jake Boss said.
Erla, Michigan State’s ace, had his best performance of the season to date, throwing seven scoreless innings and striking out eight batters to shut down Illinois for a comfortable victory for the Spartans.
The pre-season All-American only allowed six base runners in the game, giving up four singles and two walks, controlling the game at every step of the way.
A runner reached third base one time while Erla was in the game in the 6th inning following an error by shortstop Mitch Jebb. Erla answered by striking out the final two batters of the inning to escape the only trouble he got in.
“He just threw a lot of strikes,” said Boss. “It's three pitches for strikes and he's able to locate both sides of the plate with his fastball and the velocity is really good as well. So that's what a Friday night guy I think looks like. Not only in our conference, but around the country. In my opinion, Mason's as good as anybody.”
The Spartan's batting was equally as impressive as Erla with production from everyone in the starting lineup to put up their second-most runs of the season so far. They scored 11 runs on 13 hits, making the most of their offense and stringing together hits in crucial moments.
Seven starters on the team ended with a hit and six drove in a run, applying constant pressure to Illinois’ pitching up and down the lineup. Bryce Kelley and Brock Vradenburg were 3 for 4 on the day leading the strong performance for the Spartan bats.
The Spartans’ scoring was contained to only three innings, but strong rallies in the first and sixth inning allowed Michigan State to build an insurmountable lead.
The Spartan added the final insurance for the game in the sixth, adding six runs to balloon the lead to 10 and chased Illinois starter Ty Rybarczyk from the game. Michigan State drove in six of the seven runners that reached base in the sixth, capped off with the bases-clearing double by Joe Stewart that drove in three runs.
The Spartans will look to build on this performance throughout the next two days with three more games in the pod before leaving Ann Arbor. Michigan State will take on Michigan and Illinois in back-to-back games Sunday, with an additional game against the Wolverines Monday before returning home for their first East Lansing game in almost two years next Friday against Indiana.
“I mean, it's a four-game series, so we're treating it like that and then the goal is to win the series,” said Boss. “And so you need to win three out of four to win the series, so obviously not easy to do. I think Illinois is a very good ballclub and you know, Michigan's a good ballclub as well. So, you know, we keep the same approach, I think we stay aggressive.”
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