Feb. 13, 2014
EAST LANSING - Michigan State kicks off the 2014 season this weekend when it heads to Cary, N.C., for four games. The Spartans will take on Monmouth on Friday at 12:30 p.m. followed by a doubleheader with UMass-Lowell and Wright State on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., respectively. MSU wraps up the opening weekend on Sunday at 1 p.m. when it battles Canisius.
"The season is here and we're excited to get out and compete," said head coach Jake Boss. "I think this is a group that's had a bit of a chip on its shoulder because of the way last year ended. Certainly we don't blame anybody but ourselves. Had we taken care of ourselves, the little things, we could've continued to play in the post season. Not doing so left a bad taste in our mouth. Hopefully, we're able to come out and play with more of a sense of urgency, understanding how important every play is."
MSU finished the 2013 season 33-17 overall and 12-9 in Big Ten play, good enough for a seventh-place finish in the conference. The Spartans enter the 2014 season with higher expectations and return eight starters from last year's roster.
"We've got a group of returning guys who are very solid and strong," said Boss. "We're basically returning all of our starting position players."
The Big Ten released its annual baseball preseason coaches' poll on Wednesday and the Spartans were selected to finish fourth. The Spartans are coming off their fourth consecutive 30-win season as they went 33-17 a year ago. Entering the year, MSU owns the most wins among Big Ten teams since 2010 with 140.
Michigan State returns almost all of its starters on defense from last year's team that committed just 47 errors as a team, the second fewest in the Big Ten behind Nebraska (44).
"We're healthy and it's good to have everybody back," said Boss. "As frustrating as it was at the end of last year, you have to take a step back and realize that we lost our best offensive player in Jordan Keur, our best defensive player in John Martinez, and the best guy out of our bullpen in Jeff Kinley. You take three of your best players out of the lineup and it's not easy, but it doesn't change the fact that we still need to go out and play well. It gave some guys some valuable experience and hopefully that pays off this year."
Michigan State will start an experienced outfield, as it returns all three of its starting outfielders from the 2013 campaign, highlighted by Big Ten Players to Watch Cam Gibson and Jimmy Pickens. Pickens was a second-team All-Conference selection last year, while Gibson earned a spot on the Big Ten's All-Freshman Team.
As a freshman, Gibson spent much of the 2013 season as the team's leadoff hitter, compiling a .325 batting average, 34 runs and 12 steals. His .325 average was the 12th best in the Big Ten and third on the team, while he ranked atop the league in both runs and steals for freshman. Along with his impact on the offensive side, Gibson provided consistency in the lineup, starting in 40 games and posting a .954 fielding percentage.
Junior Jimmy Pickens enters his third year as the starting right fielder for the Spartans and is coming off a season in which he was named the team's John Kobs Most Valuable Player. Pickens started all 50 games for MSU and led the team in runs scored (39), RBIs (42), total bases (103), slugging percentage (.528) and home runs (9). Pickens was a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the Spartan lineup, ranking in the top 10 of the Big Ten in all of those categories.
Anthony Checky started 44 games last season and the junior enters his third season as the starting center fielder for MSU. Checky was the league-leader in stolen bases, swiping 23 bags on 25 tries, while his 34 runs were tied for the second most on the team.
Co-captain and junior Ryan Krill will start at first base. Krill returns to the lineup after a season in which he ranked in the top five on the team in hits (55), doubles (11), RBIs (25) and batting average (.288). He proved a reliable glove in the field as well, recording 448 putouts to just four errors, good for a .991 fielding percentage. Krill made an appearance in all 50 games last year for MSU, starting at first base in 48 of those appearances.
Sophomore PJ Nowak expects to be the starting second baseman for MSU. Nowak appeared in 17 games during his freshman campaign, gaining valuable experience that will allow him to come in and start this season. He recorded a .969 fielding percentage last year.
Redshirt Junior Ryan Richardson earned the starting job at shortstop after starting in all 50 games last season. Richardson was a part of 17 double plays and as a patient hitter at the plate, heled the team in walks last season and had a team-high 10-game hitting streak in mid-March.
Justin Hovis adds another reliable glove on the left side of the infield, as the sophomore will start at the third base. Hovis had 62 assists with only two errors all season in the infield, resulting in a .979 fielding percentage.
Co-captain Joel Fisher is the only senior to be featured in the Michigan State starting lineup and will be the starting catcher for the 2014 season. He called 37 games behind the plate in 2013 and caught 17 opponents stealing a base, as MSU allowed the second fewest stolen bases in the Big Ten last season (34). Fisher's efforts earned him the team's Danny Litwhiler Defensive Player of the Year. Along with his defense, Fisher provided power for the Spartans as well, ranking second on the team in home runs (5) and third in doubles (11), along with 27 RBIs.
Blaise Salter returns as the leading hitter from 2013 and is slotted in the DH spot. Salter led the team in batting average (.343), doubles (14), and hits (62) and was named to the All-Mideast Region Second Team and was a third-team All-Big Ten selection. Salter owns a career .328 batting average with 49 RBIs in 66 career starts.
While the Spartans lost pair of weekend starters in Andrew Waszak and David Garner, they return a trio of talented arms in Mick VanVossen and sophomores Anthony Misiewicz and Justin Alleman that will begin the season as the starting rotation.
"We return some pitching that had a lot of success last year with (Mick) VanVossen and (Anthony) Misiewicz," said Boss.
VanVossen posted a 2.97 ERA in 11 starts last season. He limited opponents to a .216 batting average over his 75.2 innings of work.
Misiewicz had a sparkling 1.60 ERA in 18 appearances - second most on the team. All but one of his appearances on the mound was out of the bullpen.
Alleman, like Misiewicz, worked exclusively in a relief role last season. The Holt native struck out 36 batters and walked just 11 in 2013.
With Alleman and Miziewicz moving into starting roles, the Spartans will be counting on a mix of veterans and newcomers in the bullpen.
"Chase Rihtarchik had a good year for us last year so we feel good about where we're at on the mound," said Boss." Jeff Kinley certainly helps at the end of the game with some depth. We've also got some talented freshmen who are going to contribute as well. They're going to have a great future at Michigan State."