Weekend roundup: Spartans struggle in ‘Baseball at the Beach’ tournament

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Mason Erla/Photo: WDBM

Luke Sloan, Assistant Sports Editor

After dropping the first series of the season at New Orleans, the Spartans traveled to Conway, South Carolina for the Brittain Resorts Baseball at the Beach tournament. Much like the opening series, this collection of games saw Michigan State struggle again, falling in all four games and failing to keep most games close.

The opponents were tough, with the contests coming against the 2016 national champion Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, who are currently ranked No. 19, North Carolina State, sitting at No. 23, and Kent State, who made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament last season.

Michigan State kicked off the tournament with a doubleheader on Friday, falling to Coastal Carolina 13-0 in game one, and 12-5 in the nightcap. NC State was up next on Saturday, a much more competitive game that resulted in a 5-0 loss. Kent State handed the Spartans a 12-2 loss in the final game of the tournament on Sunday.

Here are three takeaways from the action this past weekend:

Starters struggle after strong start

The Spartans’ starting trio of Mason Erla, Mike Mokma and Indigo Diaz missed a couple bats against New Orleans, to say the least. There were a combined 21 strikeouts from the starting staff in the three-game series, including nine punchouts for Diaz, seven for Erla and five for Mokma. But the tide turned this past weekend, with disappointing performances following up these impressive ones.

After firing five efficient innings and earning the win in his first start of the season, Erla struggled mightily against Coastal Carolina in game one. The redshirt sophomore gave up 10 hits and eight earned runs in just 4.1 innings of work on Friday. He was also wild, surrendering two walks and hitting two batters.

The Iowa Western Community College transfer Diaz was arguably the best of the three pitchers last weekend, compiling nine strikeouts in his first career NCAA appearance. He, like Erla, also saw a decline in results. Diaz only lasted three innings against Kent State, allowing nine earned runs. This was fueled by six walks surrendered. 

Sophomore Jesse Heikkinen made his first start of the season in the second game against Coastal Carolina, he only made two starts last season as a true freshman. Heikkinen was greeted rudely to the tune of nine hits and four earned runs in four innings, an inopportune start to his 2019. He did fire seven strikeouts, though.

The one bright spot for the starting staff in this series was Mokma, who threw six scoreless innings and earned a new career high in strikeouts with six against NC State. Mokma is off to a strong start this season with a 2.45 ERA in 11.0 innings pitched.

You’re hot and you’re cold

A trio of experienced starting position players are struggling out of the gate, while two veteran players who are getting a chance to start again in their senior seasons are off to hot starts. This all equates to a slow start in 2019 from the offense as a whole, as the unit is hitting only .208 with just 16 RBI in seven games.

Senior shortstop Marty Bechina clubbed 47 hits, six home runs and 23 RBI last season, but is struggling to produce so far this year, owning a .130 batting average. Junior outfielders Danny Gleaves and Bryce Kelley hit .272 and .271 last season, respectively. On this young season, Gleaves is slashing .067 and Kelley .241. The duo has also only managed two stolen bases after swiping a combined 58 in 2018.

These household names are slumping, but a pair of older players are thriving in new opportunities after not playing much last season. Second baseman Royce Ando was limited to 16 games last season due to injury, but the senior is once again healthy, hitting .375 with four RBI. Dan Chmielewski was a part-time player prior to this year, but he’s now an everyday starter, hitting .269 with two steals.

Bullpen blues

Many of the Spartans’ key bullpen pieces have struggled when called upon, and they’ve received a heavy workload as well. Just 32.2 of the 58.0 innings thrown by MSU pitchers this season have come from the starters. That’s a lot of work for a bullpen to shoulder, especially just out of the gate.

Junior Mitchell Tyranski, who posted a 2.42 ERA in 2018, currently holds an 8.44 ERA in 5.1 innings. Senior Evan Flohr and junior Jarret Olson have only managed ERAs of 6.75 and 7.71, respectively. Caleb Sleeman has pitched the most innings out of the pen with six, posting a 4.50 ERA.

The relievers have been put in tough spots so far this season, often entering games early and having to soak up more innings than usually needed. This has taken a toll on them, and it’s a trend that must be reversed for a successful 2019. All Michigan State pitchers have combined for a team ERA of 8.07 on the season.

MSU now falls to 1-6 on the season following the four losses in South Carolina. The Spartans will look to get back on track this weekend as they travel west to take on the 7-0 Arizona State Sun Devils in Tempe, Arizona.