Feb. 15, 1997
Michigan State Season Outlook
With newly gained confidence and a revamped team philosophy, the Michigan State baseball program is ready for a return to respectability and prominence in the Big Ten in 1997.
The resurgence is sparked by several key veteran players and some much heralded newcomers who are ready to take Michigan State to new heights and be a top contender.
"With the experience we have and the first freshman class our staff has brought in, we will be competitive," second-year head coach Ted Mahan said. "We had an outstanding fall downtown at Oldsmobile Park and all of our players are hungry for playing time."
Despite finishing 14-41 overall last season (4-24, 10th in the Big Ten), the Spartans are eyeing the future. They played 20 one-run games a year ago and ended with a 3-17 record in such bouts while five of them went into extra innings.
However, the experience gained from those battles should prove valuable. Michigan State returns seven starting position players and its top three starting hurlers among 15 letterwinners this spring.
"Obviously, we need to improve, and improve a lot, to have success," said Mahan. "Last year was a very unfortunate year for Michigan State baseball. We didn't play very well on occasions and injuries plagued the team, which led to a poor season."
The Spartans lose seven letterwinners from a year ago, including hard-hitting first baseman Matt Riggins, who etched his name of six MSU seasonal charts and four career lists en route to third-team All-Big Ten honors. His 16 home runs last year tied Kirk Gibson's single-season mark, while his 34 career dingers and 156 career RBIs are all-time MSU marks.
"This year, we have worked very hard at getting better and gaining confidence. I think we accomplished some of that in the fall by defeating Louisville at Oldsmobile Park. Against Eastern Michigan, we had our chances at the end but just came up short."
MSU defeated the Cardinals, 9-3, in an exhibition game on Sept. 20. The Spartans came back the next week and lost a heartbreaking 6-5 decision to Eastern Michigan after leaving the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Michigan State boasts six seniors on this year's roster, players who still recall a trip to the Big Ten playoffs as freshmen: Tom Olejnik, Josh Weeks, Marty Patterson, Chad Marshall, Shane Johnson and Zack Casey.
"The seniors have worked very hard to have success," Mahan said. "I want to see these six players go out on a winning note and have the success they deserve. Most of them have been starters since their freshman years and they've earned a shot at success."
Helping them get that success are 14 newcomers.
"We have a very large and talented group of freshmen who eventually will give us six or seven starting position players and possibly three starting pitchers in time," Mahan added.
The Spartans have eight returning pitchers, including their top three starters in right-handers Brian Murphy, Tom Olejnik and Josh Weeks.
Murphy, a junior and one of this year's co-captains, earned first-team All-Big Ten kudos last year as a sophomore after a superb performance on the mound. His 2.81 earned run average ranked second among Big Ten pitchers and led the Spartan rotation throughout the season.
The MSU Pitcher of the Year posted a 2.45 ERA in conference games only, also second in the Big Ten, and led the league pitching seven complete Big Ten games. Murphy averaged 5.96 strikeouts and just 2.59 walks per nine innings. In the fall, he pitched four innings, struck out nine, allowed just one earned run and did not walk a single batter.
"I think having our No. 1 guy going into the season is good for our team confidence," Mahan commented. "I know that when Brian is on the mound, we have a very good chance to win because he'll keep us in the game."
Olejnik returns after starting 12 of 13 games last year and throwing 71 innings for a 5.70 ERA. His 2.28 walks per nine innings ranked third among pitchers and he only gave up 1.95 walks per game in Big Ten action.
Weeks rotated with Olejnik as the No. 2-or-3 starter and compiled a 4.92 ERA and 37 strikeouts. In the fall, Weeks struck out five and walked only three in four innings.
"The key to the season will be how well Weeks and Olejnik throw," Mahan said. "If these two seniors have better consistency, we will be a top competitor. Our 1-2-3 starting pitchers will help groom our newcomers for the future."
Included in that list of fresh faces is returning sophomore Gary Kinnie, who saw limited action last year because of an arm injury. The 1995 fifth-round draft pick of Seattle should be ready to become a factor for MSU.
One of the most heralded newcomers this year is sophomore Mark Mulder, who sat out last season. Mulder, who was a 1995 late-round draft pick by Detroit, had an excellent outing at the USA Baseball National Trials in January and poses as a threat on the mound, at the plate and at first base. He will be used as the closing pitcher early on and could see action as a starting pitcher. Mulder tossed three innings in the fall, striking out seven and giving up just one hit. During the summer, he had a 1.85 ERA with 87 strikeouts against 276 batters. With the fourth starting spot up for grabs, Mulder and Kinnie lead the competition along with freshmen Tony Bubacz, Tony Graham and Kimya Massey.
Long relief roles will be filled by returning juniors Josh Cooper, Bernie Gibbons and Jerry Nozewski. Preseason short relievers include sophomore Chris Yens, freshman Mike Anderson and junior Gid Douglas, while Marty Patterson may also be called to fill in again this year, when he's not catching.
Behind the mask, the Spartans look to second-year starter Patterson, who also saw action on the mound last year after breaking his catching hand in the first game of the season. The senior co-captain is a prolific hitter and a steady defensive performer, hitting .315 while throwing out 16 runners last season. In the fall, Patterson clubbed three doubles in five at bats, had three RBIs and scored three runs.
Sophomore Carlos Fernandez is the second man in line after stepping in for Patterson last year. The walk-on from East Lansing turned some heads with his maturity and mobility.
Adding depth this year will be freshman Joe Kalczynski, a 32nd-round draft pick by Detroit in 1996.
"Marty will see a lot of action catching," Mahan said, "and Carlos has improved a lot, offensively and defensively. Patterson also has a chance of playing some outfield and first base, depending on injuries and depth. Kalczynski also might see some action there and maybe at first or as a designated hitter."
The Spartan infield began to take shape in the fall with a mixture of youth and experience forming a steady unit: Mulder at first, freshman Ted Demetral at second, junior Tom Grigg at shortstop and senior Shane Johnson at third.
Not enough can be said about Mulder, who belted a home run and finished 4-for-8 in the fall. At the USA Baseball Trials, he hit .286 (2-7), had two RBIs and struck out just once against some of the nation's finest players. In the summer, he hammered 17 doubles, seven triples and seven home runs while hitting .376 (70-170) with a team which finished with a 66-10 record.
Junior Gus Ornstein and freshmen Joe Albaugh and Ryan Leson will provide depth at first base.
Holding down the starting spot at second base is Demetral, who will also see time at shortstop, while sophomore Bryan Page will challenge him for playing time.
"Ted has the edge after an impressive fall season with his bat and speed on the bases," Mahan said.
Demetral played both games at Oldsmobile Park in the fall and finished 3-for-6 with a double, scored four runs and stole three bases. Defensively, he had one putout and five assists without committing any errors.
Starting at short is junior Tom Grigg, who started all 55 games last year and was replaced just twice, including once for an injury. The third-team All-Big Ten selection is a two-year starter who brings a wealth of experience to the lineup and was named MSU's Defensive Player of the Year in 1996. Grigg committed just four errors in conference play and his .306 batting average was fourth on the team. He also was third in the Big Ten with 35 walks.
At the hot corner is senior Shane Johnson, battling with freshman Scott Kocol. Johnson started 41 games last year either at third, second or first base and was involved in 16 double plays, while committing just four errors in his last 36 games.
Roaming the outfield this year will be returning starting seniors Chad Marshall in left field and Zack Casey in center. Both have started most of the games since their freshman seasons and will be pushed by this year's freshmen, including Mike Pisani, who will likely get the early-season nod in right field. Albaugh also figures in the mix after having an outstanding fall season.
Marshall held the team's second-highest batting average (.319) and started all 51 games he played in a year ago. He also laced 14 doubles, tied for ninth on MSU's single-season list, and had two nine-game hitting streaks.
Casey recovered from shoulder surgery in the off-season and has improved tremendously with the bat.
Bolstering the right side with Pisani are sophomores Jason Rice and Tom Hartley. Rice is making the switch after starting in left last year.
Rice became a top offensive threat late in the season. His batting average went from .097 to .280 with a .371 average (23-62) in the final 19 games. Rice hit safely in 16 of those games, including eight contests of two hits in each.
More power and diversity comes with this year's top choices for designated hitter. Leading off the young group is Ornstein, who crushes the long ball with power from the left side, followed by Leson, Patterson, Kalczynski, Albaugh and Rice.
MAKING THE GRADE
Michigan State baseball prides itself on having strong academic success. Last year, all four seniors graduated within five years, including two who graduated in four and one with honors. And all six seniors on this year's team are scheduled to graduate within five years.
During the fall semester, the Spartans attained a 2.9 team grade-point average. Leading the way was sophomore Tom Hartley's 3.9 GPA, while five freshman earned a 3.5 or better in their first semesters of college courses.
In order to achieve those standards, MSU baseball players attend 10 hours of study hall a week with tutors available at no cost to the student-athletes.
Most Valuable Player - Matt Riggins Most Improved Player - Scott Strubbe Offensive Player of the Year - Matt Riggins Defensive Player of the Year - Tom Grigg Pitcher of the Year - Brian Murphy Bullpen Club Academic Award - Tom Hartley Craig Hendricks Memorial Award - Mike Stephenson
(Most positive team player who is enthusiastic, trustworthy, conscientious, hard-working and good-humored)