Michigan State baseball is coming off one of the most successful seasons in school history last year when they posted 36 wins, tied for the fourth-most in school history. Heading into the 2017 season, the Spartans are gearing up to not just reach that mark but top it.
The 2017 season kicks off this weekend when MSU travels to Abilene, Texas for a three-day, four-game series against Abilene Christian.
"I think this is always a fun week. We are really excited to get rolling and get out in some warmer weather. There's nothing quite like game week. The excitement is in the air now and you start to settle in the routine of travel and game day routines and things of that nature. Everybody is excited; we've got a veteran group. As much as we love each other, we're sick of hitting and playing against each other, so it's going to be good to get out and compete with somebody else," MSU head coach Jake Boss, Jr., said.
The Spartans return six starters and three starting pitchers from last season's 36-20 squad that advanced to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. While MSU lost three players to the Major League Baseball Draft in June, pitchers Dakota Mekkes and Cam Vieaux along with first baseman Jordan Zimmerman, the Spartans have more that enough weapons to reload for another run to the Big Ten title.
Three milestone victories are on the near horizon for Spartan baseball, one involving the program's well-decorated history while the other two involve the Spartans' manager.
Michigan State enters the 2017 season with 2,299 all-time wins, and with their next win, the Spartans will become just the fifth team in the Big Ten Conference and the 32nd team in the country with 2,300 wins.
Boss is starting his ninth season as head coach of the Spartans and he has an overall record of 289-215 (.573) in his nine overall years as a collegiate head coach, needing 11 wins for his 300th career win. He has a 264-181 (.593) record at the helm of the MSU program, meaning that if the Spartans equal last year's win total of 36 wins, Boss will reach the 300-win plateau mark as the Spartan head coach.
Five of the 10 winningest seasons in MSU history have come under Boss' direction. He has guided the Spartans to 30-win seasons in each of the last seven years, as well as the Big Ten regular-season championship in 2011 and the NCAA Tournament in 2012.
Michigan State has goals of winning the Big Ten Championship, but also reaching the NCAA Tournament in 2017, and Boss feels that his team has the tools to do so.
"The adage to be a good ball club that you have to be strong up the middle is true. I think we are strong up the middle this year. If you look at our ball club, the pitching is extremely deep. It's a veteran group, but there are some young guys on there, some freshmen, that are really going to contribute too," Boss said.
The Spartan head coach will have ample talent to fill out his lineup each game, including on the mound.
"We go probably 11, 12, 13 guys deep on the mound, which is tremendous as far as a college baseball team is concerned. It's as deep of a pitching staff as I've ever been able to coach," Boss said. "I really like this team. It will be fun to see what they can accomplish."
"Our catcher was drafted last year by the Minnesota Twins in the 24th round and turned down the draft so he is back to finish out his senior year here at Michigan State. Matt Byars is a great kid, tremendous defensive catcher, one of the best around. We have Dan Durkin at second base and then Brandon Hughes in center field. Hughes is a very athletic kid who runs extremely well and is kind of the guy who makes out offense go. You sprinkle that in with some talented and powerful corner guys, a couple of freshmen in the mix as well, a couple of freshmen arms in the mix as well," Boss said.
Byars was selected No. 723 overall by the Minnesota Twins in the 2016 Major League Baseball Draft, but opted to return to Michigan State for his senior season.
"Matt Byars, obviously had a very good year last year. I thought he made a great decision coming back to Michigan State for his senior year. It's a tough decision, I know, and I think each case is different. With Matt's situation and what the Twins offered him, it wasn't enticing enough to trump his senior year at Michigan State," Boss said. "We are obviously happy to have him back. He is one of the best defensive catchers in the country. I think Matt will hit in the middle of the order for us and provide some power as well. I would expect Matt to have a big year for us. They say if you're going to be a good ball club, you have to be strong up the middle, and I think Matt leads the way there."
Behind the plate defensively, Byars threw out 12 potential base stealers and picked off two more. At the plate offensively, Byars hit .284 with 26 RBI with 16 doubles, which tied for 11th in the league, adding two triples and four home runs, and was a perfect 3-for-3 swiping bases. He appeared in 55 of the 56 games last season.
Anchoring the infield is Durkin, who was named the team captain after all the players asked Boss and the coaching staff to do so, and will wear the captain's "C" on his jersey in a new move by Boss, announced at the program's First Pitch Dinner to kick off the start of the season.
"It was a really special moment selfishly for me as a coach," Boss said. "Dan has been a tremendous player and tremendous leader here for us for four years now. I think the neat thing about putting the "C" on his jersey on was that it came from the players. It was not my idea and it was not anybody on the coaching staff's idea. That was the idea of his teammates and they came to us as a staff and said, `We really want to do this.' They were passionate about this and it was a no-brainer. I think it was a very neat honor for Dan and I think it means more coming from his peers."
Durkin earned First Team All-Big Ten last season after batting .324 at the plate, tallying 32 RBI, nine doubles and six HRs, while stealing five bases. Durkin is the only returner and just one of two players total to have both started and played in all 56 games a year ago.
"Dan Durkin's at second base coming off of a First Team All-Big Ten year. He was the unquestioned leader of this ball club and a young man that has really earned everything he has gotten here with the way that he goes about his business, the way he handles himself and his work ethic. He is a very impressive young man and one of the better leaders that I have ever had the pleasure of coaching," Boss said.
The Spartans' other returning All-Big Ten award winner is Hughes in center field.
"Brandon Hughes in center field is good defensively as there is in my opinion, and then offensively he kind of makes us go," Boss said. "He is a catalyst and he is a switch-hitter that can do a lot of different things. He can hit for power, he can hit for average, and he is a threat to steal bases. He is really going to make our offense go. I would expect him to hit in the leadoff spot and really kind of set the table for the guys to, in the middle of the order, drive them in."
In addition to being the other returning All-Big Ten honoree, Hughes is one of three returning Spartans to hit over .300 as he hit .303 with 31 RBI, 11 doubles and two round-trippers. Hughes also led the team and was 11th in the Big Ten with 17 stolen bases.
Moving back to the infield, sophomore Marty Bechina will be holding down the hot corner after splitting time between there and the outfield last year. He hit .260 with 23 RBI, earning Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors.
"We are going to bring Marty Bechina back into the infield for his sophomore year. Marty had a good freshman year for us. He played mostly left field and played a lot of infield at third base over the summer and was very good in the fall. Marty is a very athletic and talented kid that will hit for power and runs well with a plus arm. We would expect him to play a solid third base," Boss said.
"At shortstop, we've got two guys that are really competing for that job right now, going head to head, and both guys have played a lot of baseball here. Both of them are very good defensively and very capable of playing good shortstop. Both could see time early and I would expect them both to get a lot of playing time this year until somebody really wins that job outright," Boss said.
The duo split time last season, both gaining valuable experience, with Ando seeing the majority of time, as he shared the team-lead with Durkin with 110 assists, while Young had 51.
"We feel good about both of them, especially defensively. Offensively, I think they both know what their games are and they will be able to help with the execution piece of what we are trying to accomplish."
The other corner will also be split by sophomore Alex Troop and junior Zack McGuire as Troop will also be one of the Spartans' starting pitchers. Troop had a stellar first 12 games of the season a year ago before suffering a season-ending injury. At the plate he hit .372 with 13 RBI (1.1 pg), six doubles and one home run, to go with two stolen bases. McGuire spent time at first backing up Spartan standout Jordan Zimmerman, while also playing DH, hitting .250 while driving in 14 runs, hitting seven doubles and two home runs.
"We'll have Alex Troop at first base, who hit the middle of the order for us last year and playing good defensively until he got hurt. Zack McGuire is the other guy that will play first base for us, especially when Alex pitches, Zack will be the first baseman," Boss said. "I would expect both of those guys to be in the lineup at some point, regardless of who is playing first base. Both guys will hit for some power and both of them are playing really well defensively right now. Again, I feel very good about those guys."
In right field will be a returner in sophomore Dan Chmielewski, who blossomed into having a dazzling freshman campaign. He is the third returner who hit over .300, posting a .308 average with five RBI and three doubles. In the field, Chmielewski made several leather-flashing plays, including making ESPN SportsCenter's Top 10 with a diving catch in the Big Ten Tournament.
"Dan Chmielewski really played well last year when he was given his opportunity and took advantage of it and was a catalyst for us starting in the Michigan series and moving forward to the end of the year," Boss said. "He is very good defensively and is another guy that can make us go and can do a lot of different things on the bases."
While a returner anchors right field, left field will be patrolled by a new Spartan in freshman Danny Gleaves. As a high school senior, Gleaves hit .450 with 24 RBI and 38 runs scored, belting 11 doubles and three home runs in earning second-team All-Chicago Area at St. Rita High School, the same program that produced Bechina.
"Danny Gleaves is a kid who runs extremely well and is a very athletic young man who can hit for both average and power. It will be interesting to see where he settles in the lineup, but with a kid with that much ability, I think the sky is the limit as far as he is concerned and it's going to be exciting to watch his development here at Michigan State," Boss said.
On the mound, Boss and his staff are excited about the talent and depth.
"I think the mound is probably where we are the deepest and have not had depth like this on the mound ever since I've been here at Michigan State," Boss said.
Troop is slated as the Spartans' potential Friday night starter on the mound. Last season the southpaw posted a 3-0 mark with a 1.64 ERA with 14 strikeouts in just four appearances with 11.0 IP (11.5 strikeouts per nine innings) before his injury. Landon is the other possibility for the Friday starter. A year ago, Landon registered a 2.75 ERA with 15 appearances with 85.0 innings, firing 59 K's. Gonzalez notched a 2.84 ERA in 17 appearances with 57.0 IP, while striking out 40.
"Ethan Landon and Alex Troop are the guys that probably lead that pitching staff and we've got what we feel are two Friday night guys in Ethan and Alex. Those guys are going to be outstanding for us," Boss said. "The third starter, Andrew Gonzalez, is back after a good year. He is healthy and throwing extremely well right now."
Erla earned honorable mention Central Region as well as All-State honors at Cass City HS, where he was a three-sport standout. Mokma posted a 15-0 record and helped lead Holland Christian to the Division 2 state title, threw two perfect games along the way and was named MLive Grand Rapids Player of the Year. At the plate, Mokma batted .440.
"Mason Erla is extremely talented and has a chance to settle into a starting role as well, as does another freshman, Mike Mokma. Again, another extremely talented young man who is going to have a great career at Michigan State," Boss said.
"The bullpen is also extremely deep and led by seniors Walter Borkovich and Joe Mockbee. Those guys have pitched a lot for us here at Michigan State. Both have closed for us, both have started for us, and they have done a lot of different things," Boss said. "Jake Lowery is another guy coming out of the pen that I think is going to be extremely good. All three of those guys have legitimate swing-and-miss pitches that we are going to need coming out of the bullpen."
Mockbee appeared in 25 games last season, pitching 56.0 innings with a 3.54 ERA and 59 strikeouts. He also made six starts, posting a 2-1 record, and also recorded five saves. Borkovich had 19 appearances with 64.1 IP, logging a 3.64 ERA while striking out 44 batters. He posted a 4-3 record in making eight starts and had one save.
Sophomore righty Nathan Witt will also see action as well entering the season with a clean bill of health.
"Nathan Witt is a young man that was red-shirted his freshman year, got hurt his red-shirt freshman year, so now he is in his red-shirt sophomore year and is finally fully healthy. The velocity is back on his fast-ball and he is a bulldog on the mound and comes right at you. I know he is chomping at the bit to get on the mound and proved to everybody what he is capable of. He has certainly done that in practice and it is good to see him finally healthy and ready to compete for Michigan State," Boss said.
Other options in the bullpen include junior lefty Keegan Baar along with a pair of freshmen in right-hander Sam Benschoter and lefty Mitchell Tyranski. Baar made 19 appearances last season with a 2.55 ERA with 25 strikeouts. Benschoter was a second-team All-State honoree at Tecumseh High School, posting a 9-1 record with 1.38 ERA and 119 K's in 61 innings, finishing his high school career with a school-record 252 Ks. Tryanski was a Rawlings-Perfect Game Honorable Mention All-American as well as honorable mention All Central Region.
"Left-hander Keegan Baar is another guy that has pitched a lot here and I think he is going to have some great opportunities, as well as young guys, Sam Benschoter and Mitchell Tyranski. They're both freshmen, right handed and left handed, with outstanding stuff, that are swing-and-miss pitchers," Boss said.
While the only player that the Spartan bullpen lost from last season was Mekkes, sophomore Riley McCauley will be handed the closer duties. Last season McCauley had a 1.59 ERA with 15 strikeouts in 13 appearances.
"Closing, Riley McCauley will get the nod at the beginning of the year as our closer," Boss said. "Riley had a great summer down in Texas and threw very well for us last year in some relief appearances. I think he has really settled into that closer role."
The Spartans will play a 53-game regular-season ledger, including the first 17 away from home.
"We are going to see some big time arms early on from UNC Greensboro, Furman, Clemson, and South Carolina. We are going to see a lot of really talented guys so it'll get us ready for a good Big Ten slate," Boss said.
MSU was tabbed fifth in the 2017 Big Ten Preseason Poll released by the conference office. The league's coaches voted on the top six teams and also selected three student-athletes from their own squads to a Preseason Honors list. MSU's Preseason Honorees included senior catcher Matt Byars, junior outfielder Brandon Hughes and sophomore pitcher/first baseman/outfielder Alex Troop.