Michigan State found some late-inning magic Sunday afternoon in the finale of their weekend series against Indiana, but it wasn’t enough as the Spartans (27-10, 8-4 Big Ten) fell to the Hoosiers (23-15, 8-4 Big Ten) 8-4 to give Indiana the series win.
“Tough one to lose,” said coach Jake Boss Jr. “I’m proud of our guys for how they came back and they showed a lot of character. We had our opportunities, and give them credit for taking advantage of their opportunities when we gave it to them.”
The Spartans got down to their final strike in the bottom of the ninth, down 3-2, when junior Matt Byars faced a full count and drew a walk. Sophomore Jake Kruk came on as the pinch runner, and senior Justin Hovis hit a sinking line drive to right field that got past the fielder and rolled to the warning track. Kruk scored all the way from first base, tying the game at three and sending the game to extra innings.
Indiana gave up a one-run lead in the ninth and 10th innings before finally building a four-run lead in the 11th that the Spartans could not overcome. The breakout started with a two-run double from Logan Sowers and continued with a two-run double from Alex Krupa.
“We did (get some clutch late hits), but they did too,” said Boss Jr. “There were moments in innings 1-9 to get it done. You never know when those are going to be, and we let a few of them slip away early in the ballgame that ended up costing us late.”
The Spartan offense started the game by putting up a run in each of the first two innings, but they failed to score for six straight frames until their run in the ninth that kept the game alive.
The scoring continued in the 10th when Indiana regained their lead off a Brian Wilhite RBI single that scored Krupa, giving the Hoosiers a 4-3 lead. The Spartans kept the game going again in the bottom half of the inning when back-to-back doubles from juniors Jordan Zimmerman and Dan Durkin put another run on the scoreboard, tying the game at four.
Junior Joe Mockbee put on a solid outing in his first start of the season, allowing five hits and two runs in 4 2/3 innings pitched. His 76 pitches thrown were right on line with the coaches’ estimate of his pitching limit.
“We realistically wanted to get five innings out of him and we were pretty close to that,” said Boss Jr. “I think he’s only going to get better with the more opportunities he gets. It’s not realistic for him to give us seven or eight innings this weekend and we were hoping for five.”
Mockbee was announced the starter in replacement of junior Walter Borkovich, who had been the Sunday starter all season but was moved to the bullpen last week. Borkovich entered the game for Mockbee in the fifth inning and pitched one inning of relief.
“I was really excited,” Mockbee said of when he was told of the change. “I was excited all week and I tried to have the best week of practice I could to get ready so I could do the best I could today. Honestly I wasn’t happy with the way I threw today and that’ll fuel me this week to get ready for next time.”
Sophomore Dakota Mekkes continued his dominant ways as a strikeout machine when he came on in the sixth for relief, despite allowing two runs. Mekkes entered the weekend leading the nation with 15 strikeouts per nine innings, and he kept it up with a career-high 10 strikeouts in 3 2/3 innings in this game.
“Whenever I can strike a guy out it means I’m getting ahead early,” said Mekkes. “That’s the key for me, making sure I get ahead of the count and pound the zone. When you start out behind a guy it’s hard to come back and get ahead and find the zone. If I can get ahead of guys then I could be great.”
Mekkes earned Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors on March 25 and has quickly become the first arm out of the bullpen this season for the Spartans. The reliever was tied for third in the conference coming into the weekend with 55 strikeouts, while also boasting a 1.36 ERA and four saves in 18 appearances.
“That’s what he does, he’s got swing and miss stuff,” said Boss Jr. “Sometimes that good stuff gets shadowed by the negatives. That’s exactly what he does, his stuff is lights out and if he can command it and play in the strike zone then he’s as close to unhittable as anybody around.”
After holding the Big Ten lead for a good chunk of the season, the series loss put Michigan State in a tie with Indiana for third in the Big Ten, behind Michigan at No. 2 and Minnesota at No. 1. The loss gives Michigan State their first Big Ten series loss of the season, after defeating Rutgers, Penn State and Purdue the last three weekends.
The Spartans move on to a midweek home game on Tuesday against Toledo (9-21-1) before a big three game conference dual with Michigan (28-10) this weekend. The Spartans will travel to Ann Arbor for the first game on Friday, followed by a game in East Lansing on Saturday and the Sunday finale back in Ann Arbor.