Much like geese fly south for the winter, Spartans do as well, in search of not only warmer weather, but baseball, and a season brimming with newfound hope.
Michigan State will kick off its 2019 regular season Friday night, a 56-game gauntlet that begins with the team’s first ever matchup with the New Orleans Privateers for a three-game weekend series. The Spartans have fared well in season openers the past few years, winning four of their past five season-openers.
After a disappointing 2018 season that saw a 20-32 record overall and two straight losses in the Big Ten Tournament, an experienced group of returning players led by veteran skipper Jake Boss Jr. will look to quickly turnaround a historically consistent program over the last decade.
“We’ll learn a lot from last year, it was a tough year for us, but it’s one of those things where we can correct a lot of those mistakes and move forward,” Boss said.
Here are three storylines to watch heading into the new season:
Guess who’s back
The Spartans will return a substantial amount of experience from last season, including eight position players with starting experience and three starting pitchers. When crunching the numbers, the returning position players combine for 76.9 percent of starts made last season, or 360 out of a possible 468 starts.
Junior outfielder Bryce Kelley returns the most experience, starting 49 games last season. Justin Antoncic (48 starts), Marty Bechina (47) and Zach Iverson (42) are the other Spartans with over 40 starts made in 2018. In total, seven players will return this season who made 30 or more starts during the previous season.
On the mound, Michigan State will bring back three starters with regular starting experience as part of a staff featuring five pitchers that made at least one start last season. Sophomore Mason Erla leads the way with 15 starts and will assume the role of “Friday night” starter this season. Mike Mokma is just behind him, starting seven games in 2018.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” Boss said. “It helps a great deal having guys like Mason Erla on the mound and throwing on Friday nights for us. The position players that are back too, you feel very comfortable rolling out some of these guys. They’ve played in big situations, they’ve played in the Big Ten Tournament, they’ve played all over the country in front of big crowds and in hostile environments.”
Suspense down the stretch
One critical aspect of the 2018 season was the overwhelming number of tight contests the Spartans found themselves playing in. A shocking 30 of Michigan State’s 52 games last season were decided by one of two runs. This 57.8 percent mark of games being decided by two runs or less was easily the highest in the Big Ten, while also the second-highest in the nation behind Gonzaga.
The Spartans posted a record of 6-10 in 15 one-run contests and 6-8 in two-run games, continuing a trend from 2017 when the team played in 17 one-run games. Many of these games came down to one critical error, or a runner left in scoring position, which Boss addressed when his team began full-squad practices in January.
“We’ve taken a lot of time to talk about the details and the little things. It seemed like a year ago we were in a lot of one-run games, a lot of close games that we lost late. We couldn’t quite get over the hump, we couldn’t quite overcome the one error, or the one strikeout with a runner at third base and two outs, those type of things.”
Strikeouts and steals
The 2018 season saw Michigan State compile some of the best strikeout and stolen-base numbers in program history. The pitching staff combined for 407 strikeouts, the fourth-most in program history with the best mark coming in 2016 when the Spartans owned 466 team strikeouts. Starting pitcher Ethan Landon led the way last year with 74 punchouts.
On the basepaths, the Spartans stole 100 bases last season, a new program record after eclipsing the previous mark of 98 swipes set in 2005. This new team stolen bases number was helped by individual efforts from Kelley, who stole a new single-season program record 33 bags in 2018, and outfielder Danny Gleaves, who stole 25, good for the fifth most single-season steals in program history.
Michigan State will open its 135th season of baseball with Erla on the mound to face the Privateers, a team that was picked seventh in the 2019 Southland Conference Preseason Poll. New Orleans went 29-32 last season, making the conference tournament final last season despite going in as an eight seed.
Mokma will take the mound in the second game of the season, with freshman Indigo Diaz finishing out the series on Sunday.
The Spartans are 80-53 all-time in season openers, including an 8-2 in under the leadership of Boss. Last year’s season opener came at Fresno State, a 5-4 loss that snapped a four-game winning streak in season-opening games.