East Lansing — Finding an intriguing story line at McLane Stadium on Thursday afternoon wasn’t hard as Michigan State and Michigan squared off in the final baseball series of the regular season.
The Wolverines, ranked No. 15 in the nation by USA Today, came into the series still battling to win the Big Ten regular-season championship as they head for what seems a likely spot in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans, on the other hand, entered the three-game set fighting for the eighth and final spot in next week’s conference tournament.
Oh, and throw in that whole rivalry thing, too.
So when Michigan State’s Alex Troop took a no-hitter into the seventh inning, it just added to what should be an exciting weekend.
Michigan State proved to be the team to get off to the quick start, taking advantage of Troop’s dominant pitching to earn a 6-1 victory.
The teams continue the series at 6 p.m. Friday in Ann Arbor.
“I’d be lying if I told you it wasn’t an important game because it’s our rival and that’s all part of it,” Michigan State coach Jake Boss said. “But given the situation and given what we need to do here in the last weekend it honestly doesn’t matter who we play. In the same breath you’ve got a chance to compete against your rival and those are always big games regardless of what is on the line.”
Michigan State (30-21, 10-12 Big Ten) entered the matchup one game behind Purdue and Northwestern for eighth place in the conference.
The top eight teams reach the Big Ten tournament.
With that on the line, Troop (8-3) was at his best. Entering the game tied for fifth in the Big Ten with a 2.62 ERA, the redshirt sophomore from Batavia, Ill., matched a season-high with 10 strikeouts and allowed one baserunner through the first six innings.
By the time Michigan’s Johnny Slater and Michael Brdar strung together back-to-back singles to lead off the seventh, the Spartans were already in control thanks to a four-run second inning followed by a Marty Bechina home run in the fourth. Zack McGuire added a home run in the eighth to back up Troop.
“It definitely makes you bring a lot of heart to the field and really pitch with a lot of motivation because we know what we’ve worked for this entire year and where we want to go,” Troop said. “This is a game we needed to win to get there, for sure.”
Troop did his part, confounding a Michigan lineup that is one of the best in the Big Ten. He finished allowing just the two hits over eight innings and walking one. Michigan (40-13, 14-8) got its run in the seventh on sacrifice fly from Miles Lewis.
And as the game went, Troop was doing his best to keep things business as usual in the dugout. However, his teammates knew what was happening.
“No one was talking to me between innings,” Troop said laughing. “I was kind of just sitting by myself, which is the way it’s supposed to be and I understood that. But it’s all part of the process and lot of fun.”
The Spartans hope Troop’s performance was just what they needed to start a huge weekend.
“That’s what our No. 1 has to do for us,” Boss said. “I think the no-hitter through six was great and he didn’t have too many three-ball counts, either, in those first five or six innings. More importantly he got deep in the game and was able to save the bullpen for another day.
“In a situation right now where we’ve got to take care of our own business, the more bullets we have in bullpen the better.”
Troop won’t likely see the mound again, though he’ll likely be swinging the bat the next two games. He knew getting the win Thursday was important, but it was far from the final step for the Spartans.
“It is very important, but we know we’re not even close to being done,” Troop said. “We’ve got to take two more and hope Purdue and Northwestern struggle a little bit this weekend. We know what we have to do and we have to get ready for that.”
And as for knocking off the team from Ann Arbor?
“It’s fun no matter what,” Troop said. “We can be 0-40 going into this game and every time you play Michigan it’s fun. So that just made it that much better that a lot was on the line for it.”
MICHIGAN VS. MICHIGAN STATE
First pitch: 6 p.m. Friday at Wilpon Complex, Ann Arbor; 1:05 p.m. Saturday at McLane Stadium, East Lansing
TV: Friday on BTN-Plus; Saturday on BTN
Records: Michigan 39-13 (14-8 Big Ten); Michigan State 28-21 (10-12)
Tickets: $6-8 at Michigan, $3-5 at Michigan State
At stake: Michigan can win the Big Ten regular-season championship; Michigan State can secure the eighth and final spot in the Big Ten tournament
Up next: Big Ten tournament, May 24-28, Bloomington, Ind.