Jan. 27, 2012
EAST LANSING, Mich. - The defending Big Ten Champion Michigan State Spartan baseball team conducted its first official practice of the 2012 season Friday afternoon inside the Duffy Daugherty Football Building.
The Spartans, who received votes in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll, return 26 letterwinners from last season's team that won 36 games, tied for third most in school history. MSU will practice for three weeks before taking on No. 11 St. John's on Opening Day Friday, Feb. 17 in Dunedin, Fla., for the Big Ten/Big East Challenge.
"We're excited to get going, there's no question about that," said MSU head coach Jake Boss, who was named the 2011 Big Ten Coach of the Year. "It's been a long time since we've played against any type of outside opposition, and this is day one of preparation of the season, which starts three weeks from today. Our guys are excited - they're fired up and ready to go."
Michigan State placed a school-record six players on the All-Big Ten First Team in 2011, and three of those players will be back this season, including senior right-handed pitcher Tony Bucciferro, junior second baseman Ryan Jones, and junior Torsten Boss.
Bucciffero ranked among the Big Ten leaders in wins (tied for second with 8), strikeouts (third with 66) and innings pitched (fourth with 101.1) last year. This spring, Bucciferro has been named a team captain and will be the No. 1 starter in the rotation.
"Tony has really grown up over the last four years," Boss said. "Obviously, he's very talented. We've seen his work ethic take off as he continues to grow and mature. He's really deserving of that captain's role. He's just a tremendous leader for us and will anchor the pitching staff."
"I'm so excited to get this opportunity to become a captain," said Bucciferro, who followed up his excellent junior season by being named a Cape Cod League All-Star over the summer. "I'm ready to follow in the footsteps of a couple of great captains last year (Brandon Eckerle, Jeff Holm) and lead our team to another Big Ten Championship.
"We have the same goal to repeat as Big Ten Champs, but we have to add this new goal, which is to make an NCAA Regional. This year's going to be a big challenge, but with big challenges come great opportunities. Once we're successful in these opportunities, hopefully we can get our name out there around the country."
Jones will start his third consecutive year at second base, while Torsten Boss, who started at third base his first two seasons, will likely move to the outfield in 2012. Boss was named a third-team preseason All-American by Collegiate Baseball after batting .370 with seven homers and 59 RBIs as a sophomore.
In addition to Bucciferro, senior shortstop Justin Scanlon will also serve as a team captain. A junior college transfer from Madison Tech College, Scanlon hit .302 with 30 RBIs and started every game at shortstop in his first season wearing the Green and White.
"Justin is in his second year here, and as a junior college transfer, for him to be voted captain I think is a true testament to his leadership," remarked Boss. "He's a guy that runs our infield and is an outstanding defensive shortstop, and did a great job offensively too for us last year in key positions when we needed him to."
"It's really special, especially coming from a junior college," said Scanlon of being voted as a team captain. "It just shows you what kind of guys we have in this locker room, that they have faith in me and trust me. I have the same back with them, so it's very special."
Scanlon also talked about the team's goal of winning back-to-back Big Ten titles for the first time in school history.
"We have to come out hungry (this season)," he said. "Coach Izzo came out and talked to us this fall about what it takes to repeat. We haven't been here before, but it's something that we're proud of. We're excited to get going."
The Spartans also return third-team All-Big Ten selections Jared Hook, who hit .341 as the primary designated hitter his junior campaign, and junior reliever Tony Wieber, who went 5-0 with eight saves last year. Wieber could also see time in the outfield as batted .288 with 21 RBIs in 26 starts in 2011.
MSU will also welcome one of the most talented freshmen classes in recent history to the roster. Four of the freshmen were drafted out of high school (Ryan Krill, Jimmy Pickens, Blaise Salter, Mick VanVossen) and others could be in line for playing time as well.
"Some young guys really played well in the fall," Boss said. "We could have up to three or four freshmen that start for us in the lineup. If those guys mature quickly and transition from high school to college baseball, I like our chances. At the same time, there will be a learning curve with those guys, but they're really talented kids to be sure. And they're learning from a good group of leaders that we have right now."
Michigan State's schedule features four teams ranked in the Collegiate Baseball Preseason Poll (No. 6 Texas A&M, No. 11 St. John's, No. 15 Louisville, No. 28 Baylor), and the Spartans will play five teams that earned bids to the NCAA Tournament last season (St. John's, Texas A&M, Baylor, Seton Hall, Illinois).
"It's a very challenging schedule," Boss said. "At the same time, it's good for our guys to play that type of competition. Our goals are always going to remain the same, and we're trying to elevate the program to another level. Last year's team took a big step toward doing that, and this year's team has an opportunity to do the same thing."
The Spartans will practice Saturday morning before attending the 2012 First Pitch Dinner, set for Saturday night at the Kellogg Center. The entire team will be signing autographs at 5:30 p.m. prior to the formal program, which will honor both Earl Morrall and Kirk Gibson. Morrall is the 2012 MSU Baseball Distinguished Alumnus of the Year, and Gibson will have his jersey (No. 30) recognized at the event.
"It's going to be a really fun time," said Boss. "It's not every day that you get to bring one Spartan great back, and one of the greatest that's ever put the green and white on, and we happen to have two in the same night. Earl Morrall, for him to fly up from Florida to come and accept our Alumnus of the Year Award, we're really honored to have him. And to have Gibby back is really something special for our program and our kids. It's good for them to see alums with that type of fame and that have had that kind of success to come back and be a part of what's going on here."