99¢ per month for 3 months
99¢ per month for 3 months

MSU baseball needs big weekend to make Big Ten tournament

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Marty Bechina and the Michigan State baseball team (18-29, 9-11) are on the bubble to make the Big Ten tournament.

Every team sets specific goals before a season. Do this. Win that. Get there.

And when Michigan State baseball players and coaches get together before Opening Day, they're not exactly talking about just making the Big Ten tournament.

"No," Spartans coach Jake Boss said. "Because I think it's kind of assumed or even understood at this point. We talk about winning a Big Ten championship.

"I don't think that will ever change, nor should it."

Still, when the Spartans take their home field Thursday for the final regular-season series of the season — three games against Ohio State — they'll find themselves in win-or-else mode.

Only the top eight of 13 teams get into next week's Big Ten tournament in Omaha, Neb., and Michigan State sits squarely on the bubble.

Michigan State didn't make the field last year, and is in danger of sitting out again.

"I mean, everybody knows kind of where we're at and what needs to be done," Boss said. "Our team has done a very good job of separating one day from the next, whether it be a good day or a bad day.

"So I don't have any concerns about us being ready to play."

Michigan State (18-29, 9-11) is tied for eighth place with Maryland (24-27, 9-11), with Maryland holding the tiebreaker having won the season series against the Spartans, 2-1. Maryland finishes with a three-game road series at sixth-place Indiana, starting Thursday.

If Maryland sweeps, Michigan State is done. If Maryland takes two of three, Michigan State must sweep. If Maryland takes one of three, Michigan State must take two of three.

Redshirt senior right-hander Ethan Landon (3-6, 4.38 ERA) starts the opener, then the Spartans turn to a redshirt freshman in right-hander Mason Erla (5-4, 4.06) for Game 2.

That's a lot of heat for an inexperienced player like Erla, who missed his senior year of high school baseball at Cass City, Mich., after suffering a knee injury playing football, then made just two starts last season before being shut down with a lat injury.

"But he's a calm, level-headed kid, with a great head on his shoulders," Boss said. "He's had kind of an up-and-down year, and part of that is getting back into game shape.

"But he'll be ready to go Friday."

Then, on Saturday, sophomore right-hander Mike Mokma (Holland Christian, 1-4, 4.99) gets the ball.

For a second consecutive season, Michigan State has gone as its offense has gone — meaning, the Spartans have been wildly inconsistent. Defense also has been a trouble spot at times.

Two bright spots, though, have been sophomore center fielder Danny Gleaves — particularly on defense — and sophomore outfielder Bryce Kelley (Rockford), who is three stolen bases from matching the program record of 30, set just last year by Brandon Hughes.

"Our pitching's been good enough, certainly, to win a lot of games," said Boss, in his 10th season as Michigan State coach. "It's just been one of those years, where there's been very little margin for error. We're on the bubble right now. If you can get to the tournament, who knows, anything can happen. You saw it last year."

In the 2017 Big Ten tournament, No. 5 seed Iowa beat No. 7 Northwestern in the championship game to earn the automatic NCAA Tournament bid. In 2016, No. 4 Ohio State beat No. 8 Iowa, 8-7. In 2015, No. 3 Michigan beat No. 4 Maryland, 4-3. A top-two seed hasn't made the championship game in the double-elimination tournament since 2014.

Michigan (32-16, 15-5), which won 20 in a row at one point this season, is safely in the tournament and could secure a No. 1 seed with a big three-game series at Purdue. It trails Minnesota by a game.

Mad MAC scramble

Western Michigan is another bubble team entering the final weekend of the regular season — a three-game series at Ball State. The top six of 10 Mid-American Conference teams advance to next week's tournament, and the Broncos occupy sixth alone.

Unlike Michigan State, though, Western (22-23, 11-11) controls its own destiny. If it wins the series, seventh-place Toledo can't catch up.

"We do talk about it, we tell them what's on the table, what a good situation we're in," Western coach Billy Gernon said. "We don't need anybody to do anything.

"I'm just gonna rock that old cliche of, 'One game at a time.'"

There can't be a tie with Toledo, because it has played two more games. That was some bad luck for Western, which saw two of its three games against last-place Bowling Green canceled in April. If Western sweeps or takes two of three, it's in. If it wins one of three, Toledo has to win two of three against Bowling Green at home.

The Broncos are led by junior outfielder Nate Grys (Madison Heights Bishop Foley), who has 10 home runs and 47 RBIs, and junior right-hander Nic Laio (3-3, 3.55), the ace of the staff.

The MAC is a bunched-up conference. Depending how things shake out, Western could get the No. 2 seed in the MAC tournament or be left out altogether.

Central Michigan (22-28-1, 13-11) should be going to Avon, Ohio, for the MAC tournament, while Eastern Michigan (20-31, 12-12) has to take care of business at home against Northern Illinois.

Soggy stretch

Oakland (14-29, 11-12) wraps up the regular season this weekend with three games at Milwaukee, starting Thursday.

The Golden Grizzlies actually will have gone a week without playing a game, after its entire four-game home series against Illinois-Chicago was washed out last weekend.

The Horizon League tournament is next week at Wright State in Dayton, and all the teams make the tournament field. With Valparaiso's exit last year, there only are six Horizon League baseball teams left — and minimum number for a conference-tournament winner to receive an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.