Impact Sports continues its preseason coverage of the 2018 Michigan State baseball season with a look at MSU’s non-conference schedule. The preview for the pitching staff can be found here.
Coach Jake Boss Jr. isn’t shy about traveling cross-country to play tough opponents. MSU has scheduled numerous signature opponents in recent years. This season, they’ll have the chance to add to quality wins against west-coast opponents. UCLA was picked by Pac-12 coaches to finish third in the conference, while Arizona and Washington were picked fourth and seventh, respectively. UCLA comes in at No. 14 in USA Today’s Coaches Poll.
The Spartans will face the Fresno State Bulldogs for the second consecutive season. The Bulldogs finished a few runs short of qualifying for the NCAA regionals last season, losing to San Diego State in the Mountain West tournament title game.
To round out the beef of the non-conference, MSU will square off against Clemson – ranked No. 21 by USA Today.
According to collegebaseballdaily.com, Niagara is predicted to finish fourth in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. MSU will also meet Furman in the First Pitch Invitational in South Carolina. Furman was selected to finish fourth in the Southern Conference by media and sixth by coaches.
If the Spartans handle business during non-conference play, they’ll put themselves in a great position to fight for an opening-round appearance. They’ll obviously have to hold their own against conference opponents, which they haven’t always done recently – but that’s a whole different conversation.
Non-conference strength of schedule and wins are, undoubtedly, two of the biggest deciders in collegiate athletics. If a coach fails to book tough opponents, or the team can’t win the games it should, then you can count on an early exit after the regular season or conference tournament.
That said, MSU needs to come away with a number of wins over the 17 games against non-conference opponents to start the campaign. Last season, the Spartans led off the season 11-5, but three of the five losses came against ranked opponents; those opponents being Clemson and South Carolina. Those three games would be the only games MSU played against ranked opponents outside of conference foe Michigan.
The clock is ticking. The Green and White haven’t been to an NCAA regional since 2012. The strength of schedule is there, and for the better part of the last five seasons, the opportunity for non-conference wins is there. This year, it’s even more manageable. The non-conference will be tough as usual, but after that, 26 home games over the remaining course of season await the Spartans.
After years of travel and ranked opponents, there’s nothing that should surprise this team. If they want to compete, gain exposure and national attention, it’ll start with a strong non-conference showing. A showing that they’ve failed to produce in seasons past.
Traveling to Fresno, Malibu, Minneapolis and Greenville all before settling back in East Lansing will surely take its toll on the ballclub, but if they expect a deep postseason run and to break their regional drought, there will be little room for error. Seasons have started on strong notes in recent years, as the Spartans rack up wins, but they fail to do so against the heavy-hitters.
MSU baseball has finished over .500 the last eight seasons. They’ve been an extremely *good* team, but that’s it. They haven’t done enough to justify consideration on the national scale – or in conference, for that matter – and haven’t helped themselves with quality victories. They’ll have the opportunity to do so once again this season.