Michigan State baseball watched itself collapse as they finished the month of May 5-7. This was after the Spartans got off to a 7-2 start in conference play, taking advantage of starting against Rutgers, Penn State, and Purdue: three teams that did not make the Big Ten Tournament.
It was losing four of the final five series against teams that all qualified for the Big Ten Tournament (Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, Iowa, Maryland) that showed MSU’s perceived true colors. It was this 6-9 record that dropped Michigan State from the top of the conference standings all the way down to seventh, and even left the team questioning if they would make the tournament at one point.
MSU’s bracket has them seeing familiar faces in the early rounds.The Spartans get Nebraska on Wednesday at 2 p.m. EST and then the winner or loser of Indiana vs Maryland on Thursday.
Whether you’re talking to one of the team leaders in second basemen Dan Durkin, or the manager Jake Boss Jr., there seems to be a team consensus that they’ve hit a slump as a whole. Slumps in baseball are natural, but the Spartan players all seem to hit theirs at once causing the fall in the standings. Although, talking to players, none of them are able to pinpoint one exact reason as to why they’re slumping, but there seemed to be two common ideas.
Catcher Matt Byars pointed out that the hitting isn’t as contagious as it was early on in the season. This is evident in their inability in recent series to hit with runners on base and with two outs, as well as the lack of team hitting. Earlier in the season top to bottom in the lineup was producing, more often now the Spartans are seeing two or three guys on, but the rest of the team off.
Another thing that players point to, is that this may be the longest season some of these guys have ever played. This team is stacked with former junior college players and freshman who may not be used to the length of a division one season. There could be some kind of mental or physical wall they hit because of this. The loss of 2015 key, veteran players and inexperience of this team is catching up to them.
The Spartans are aware of what they’re able to accomplish. Outfielder Kris Simonton even stated that when their bats are rolling they can beat any team in the country. That is true if you look at what they accomplished down south and have done to opponents when they win. Simonton also wonders if the pressure of being ranked affected him and his teammates as well.
Boss stands by the fact that this is a special group of guys and that he really likes his team’s chances in Omaha, where the tournament is being held.
If the Spartans want to keep their postseason alive after the Big Ten Tournament, they better catch momentum now because according to an e-mail from Maxwell Gross of SB Nation college baseball, winning the tournament is their only chance at that.
“The only chance the Spartans have to get into the regionals is to win the Big 10 tournament,” said Gross. “They have a nice 34-17 record, but their RPI is at 77, which is too high to be considered for an at-large. Typically the committee won’t pick a team with an RPI higher than 60 as an at-large. Also, the Spartans only good series win is over Michigan. They just don’t have a resume strong enough to get an at-large bid.”
Seeing both an extra-inning and one-run loss to Indiana and having a lackluster offense against Nebraska in East Lansing can really be seen as the turning point in the season. A series win against one of those teams or both could have really helped the Spartan resume. Now of course, it didn’t help losing series to Maryland and Iowa, who aren’t NCAA tournament caliber teams.
The focus has always been on winning the Big Ten tournament, but the magnitude of these upcoming games have increased now that MSU finds themselves in a “win and you’re in” situation, being the only path to the NCAA regionals.
Preview against all possible early round opponents
If MSU truly solves this slump like they mentioned after the Maryland series, they should be able to beat Nebraska. Their two losses to the Huskers epitomizes the slump and can even be seen as a fluke for this offense as the Spartan offense went 4/30 with runners on, 0/14 with runners in scoring position, and 1/19 with two outs. That is unbearably bad, so bad it is unlikely to be repeated. The silver lining in all of that, is that they were still able to score seven runs total in the two losses. What fans saw in that series was not representative of the MSU season offensively as a whole.
Another reason the Spartans could beat Nebraska is if their ace Cam Vieaux figures it out and is feeling ready to go on Wednesday. Vieaux allowed seven hits and five earned runs over 4 ⅓ innings against Nebraska last time he saw them and really hasn’t been productive since hurting himself in the Michigan game. Vieaux has been battling shoulder stiffness over the past few weeks and it has really affected his performance. Boss does claim that Vieaux is feeling better and the reason he failed out of the bullpen against Maryland was a coaching error on himself. Boss also says he should have known that Vieaux isn’t used to coming out of the bullpen and he put him in a tough situation with the bases loaded. Boss has enough confidence in the former MLB draft pick to figure it out in time for the Big Ten Tournament opener.
The first loss to Indiana came at the hands of the Indiana ace, Kyle Hart, who is 10-3 with a 3.09 ERA. He had his way with the Spartans, but MSU was still able to find a way to score two runs with the use of small ball. Luckily for MSU, Hart will most likely be used in their opening game. To make things even better, Indiana’s most likely number two starter is Caleb Baragar, who started the game where MSU won 9-0. In the series finale, MSU was once again able to find a way to get some runs against a tough Hoosier pitching staff, but had a rare unraveling from the bullpen in the 11th inning. The Spartans have reason to believe they can compete with IU as they have battled hard with them already this season. Ethan Landon was the pitcher apart of that shutout and will most likely be pitching the second game for MSU. So if these teams face off on the second day, MSU is anything but out of it.
The Spartans already have a chance at revenge from last weekends series if they cross paths with the Terrapins on day two of the tournament. The losses to Maryland tell the same story as the games against Nebraska and Iowa, where the bats seemed to be nonexistent. MSU was 4/22 with runners on, 3/17 with runners in scoring position, and 2/20 with 2 outs in both the losses. But just like in the Nebraska series, they were still able to score seven runs in the losses. So even when they’re not getting it done, they’re getting it done.
So if the boys in Green and White really do break out of their slump and rally each other like they swear they’re going to, you can plan on seeing a lot more damage offensively. They have been capable of the “hit parade” they are trying to achieve again, but have been unable to make their hitting contagious during this team slump. If the parade is moving, the Spartans truly can compete for the Big Ten Tournament title. The pitching will always be there, especially if Vieaux figures it out, so a lot is riding on the offense to execute when they need to.