Spartans Sweep Scarlet Knights in Doubleheader to Open Big Ten Play

After being unable to play due to poor field conditions on Friday, the Spartans (15-3) would face the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (8-11) in a doubleheader Saturday.

Luckily the weather held up for MSU as it was beautiful skies for the doubleheader. The Spartans were able to pull out two wins, 5-2 and 5-4.

I’m proud of our guys for really competing for 18 innings,” MSU head coach Jake Boss Jr said. “It’s a long day and it can get tough. We knew we were going to get a great effort out of Rutgers. Our guys answered the bell when they needed to today – it was good to get two W’s.”

Despite vastly different records, the Spartans were playing a team that mirrored them: tough ace, strong bullpen, plays some small ball, will run on you.

Pitching had the upper hand for both teams early and it would remain a pitcher’s duel the rest of the game. Howie Brey, Rutgers’ senior left-handed slinger, entered the day with 3.27 ERA and .262 opponents batting average. He would be met by the Spartan ace, Cam Vieaux, who has been dominant all season pitching a 1.19 ERA and only allowing opponents to hit .222.

Vieaux looked jumpy coming out of the gates and had a lot of long at-bats to start the day. The 3rd inning exemplified Vieaux’s unsettledness, and Rutgers took advantage of this by implementing their small ball strategy they are known for.

The Scarlet Knights would bunt for a base hit after the leadoff hitter was walked. Another Rutgers base hit would load the bases for Vieaux with no outs. After a sac fly and another single, the Scarlet Knights would go up 2-0. Vieaux was already up to 62 pitches, 40 of them being strikes. He was unable to finish off batters with two strikes, but also was getting hammered with a lot of foul balls that would ultimately run up his pitch count early.

It seemed like the Spartans might be digging themselves a hole for the second game if they had to go to the bullpen early.

On the other side, Brey had his way with Michigan State only allowing one hit through three innings. It was shaping out to be another cold day for MSU bats.

Who else than the Spartan hitting machine, Jordan Zimmerman, to wake up the offense?

After a Zimmerman moon shot, a home run in the bottom of the 4th that would tie the game at 2, Vieaux seemed to settle in a little more, allowing the pitching coaches to relax. A great example of how pitching and hitting have been backing each other up all season. When Vieaux is shaky, Zimmerman is able to blast one to fire up the dugout.

“You know what,” Taylor Grace said. “Zimmerman is just a great player. He gets along with everybody. He does what he needs to do on the field.”

In the fifth, a red hot Dan Durkin (.400 batting average coming into today’s game) had the chance to obtain the first Spartan lead of the game as he sat in the most dramatic position in baseball. Bases loaded, 2 outs, tie game. He shot one to right field but was fielded perfectly by the Rutgers outfielder.

Through the fifth inning, the pair of Big Ten ace’s had almost identical stats.

 

Vieaux (6 hits, 2 BB, 2 ER, 3 SO)

Brey (5 hits, 1 BB, 2 ER, 3 SO)

 

Grace, making his second start of the season would get his second hit of the game in the 6th. Heads up baserunning got Grace to second on a ball in the dirt which would set up breakout senior Justin Hovis to single him home making the score 3-2.

That’s all the Spartans would need to allow the dominant MSU bullpen to take over and shut the door on the visitors after Vieaux exited with 6.2 innings under his belt.

The Spartans would scratch another run in the 7th off a Grace single and then again in the 8th off an obscure suicide-squeeze play set up by Hovis.

Dakota Mekkes continues to be one of the most dominant relievers in the NCAA and the first arm out of the Spartan bullpen. It’s become more common for Mekkes to strike out the batter than not. He struck out 5 in 7 batters faced, and that has been the theme for him all season.

With a win in the first half of the day, MSU would move on to be 16-3 as Rutgers would slide down to 8-12.

There was not much rest between games, as first pitch was set a half an hour after the end of game one at 3:25 p.m.

Already having played one game today, the physical and mental toll seemed to take effect on both teams. Errors and lazy play plagued each side.

“It’s hard on the body,” Grace said. “It is a lot of mental. Just standing out there for 18 innings doing what you have to do… but in the end we got both W’s and it was worth it.”

The afternoon game featured two right-handed starting pitchers, Ethan Landon for Michigan State and Kyle Driscoll for Rutgers. Each pitcher came into Saturday with a non-winning record in five games started: 1-1 and 1-2, respectively.

“Doubleheaders definitely wear on your body,” Zimmerman said. “You just gotta be cautious and stay warm in between innings.”

Rutgers’ R.J. Devish led off the game with a bloop single to right field. A fielder’s choice, a single, and a sacrifice fly to deep right field eventually got Rutgers on the board. Chris Suseck was then thrown out attempting to steal to end the inning.

The Spartans found themselves down 1-0 heading into the bottom of the first inning, but they were able to erase the deficit after two batters.

A Marty Bechina double to right field set it all up. Dan Durkin laced a ball towards the Rutgers’ first baseman, who was unable to corral the ball and as it trickled into the right field grass, Bechina scored with ease.

Driscoll seemed out-of-sync. Three walks later and there was no place to put Kris Simonton, walking in a run and making it a 2-1 ballgame.

In the top of the third inning, after two quick outs, Landon dug himself a hole: giving up two singles, two walks, and committing an error. Rutgers retook the lead, 3-2.

The top of the fourth brought another scoring chance for Rutgers, but a costly base running error ended their hopes. With a runner on third base, Devish hit a line drive towards center field. MSU’s Robbie Jones made the catch and attempted to throw the runner out at home. The throw was late, but RU’s Gaby Rosa, who was at third, left the base early trying to tag up – keeping their lead at 3-2.

The Spartan offense could not be kept in a cage forever. Four singles and a walk allowed MSU to go up 4-3 in the bottom of the fifth. Rutgers head coach Joe Litterio went to the bullpen, bringing in left-handed pitcher Ryan Fleming, who would go an inning and a third allowing no runs on two hits.

“Guys like to compete,” Boss said. “I think there are certain times where during the game certain guys need to be reminded where we are [and] what we’re doing. But at the same time, these guys are Division 1 athletes…it’s nothing new.”

Ethan Landon’s day was done after six innings pitched, allowing three runs (one earned), six hits, two walks, and six strikeouts.

Sophomore Jake Lowery came on in relief, but only lasted two-thirds after facing four batters, giving up two hits and too much solid contact.

MSU head coach Jake Boss Jr. had seen enough and quickly motioned to the bullpen. Junior left-hander Joe Mockbee was called to the mound.

The sun began to set on McLane Baseball Stadium and shadows grew longer.

Still up one run, the Spartans headed into the last three innings looking for some insurance. And that is what they got in the bottom of the seventh thanks to a two-out RBI single by Durkin. MSU grew their lead to 5-3 but left the bases loaded.

RU’s Jawuan Harris led off the top of the eighth with a solo shot deep to left field over the scoreboard and into the trees. An error and a single to follow seemed to wake Mockbee up as he closed the door on the Scarlet Knights.

Mockbee struck out the side to finish the game and helped the Spartans improve to 17-3 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten.

“You want to get off on the right foot and give yourself a chance to win the series,” Boss said. “Now we’ve put ourselves in a good position heading into tomorrow.”

The Spartans and Scarlet Knights will close out the series on Sunday at 1 p.m.

 

MSU 5 – 2 RU boxscore

MSU 5 – 4 RU boxscore