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UM, MSU baseball square off with plenty at stake

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Amazingly, Michigan and Michigan State don’t play a series in baseball every year. Heck, in 2014, they didn’t even play a single game against each other.

For whatever reason, the Big Ten hasn’t protected the rivalry in baseball.

Michigan and Michigan State will play a three-game series this weekend that has plenty riding on it for both teams.

It makes it a bit more special when the teams do get together — like this week, when they will meet in the final series of the regular season, with a whole lot on the line for both teams.

“Rivalry games mean something, they matter,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “First and foremost, there’s no faking it — we don’t like them and they don’t like us. So it’s good that there are stakes and things on the line, but most importantly, it’s a rivalry game.”

Michigan (40-12, 14-7 Big Ten) and Michigan State (28-21, 9-12) will battle in a three-game series, with two games in East Lansing, on Thursday and Saturday, and one in Ann Arbor, on Friday.

The Wolverines, ranked 19th nationally by Baseball America, are playing for a Big Ten regular-season championship, which would be their first since winning three straight from 2006-08. They enter the week a half-game behind Nebraska, which clings to a narrow lead because of a tie in its record.

The Spartans, meanwhile, are playing for the eighth and final spot in the Big Ten tournament, which is next week at Indiana. Michigan State is in ninth place and trailing Purdue and Northwestern by a game, so it needs some help. The Spartans, at least, currently hold the tiebreaker against both teams.

Michigan State has missed the Big Ten tournament just twice in coach Jake Boss’ eight seasons, and both came down to the final weekend. In 2010, Northwestern hit a walk-off, three-run homer to beat Michigan State in the regular-season finale and keep the Spartans out. And in 2013, it had a good final series, taking two out of three against Penn State, but didn’t get any help.

“There are implications for the postseason, obviously, for both of us,” Boss said. “Yeah, it’s a big weekend, but usually the last weekend of the year is a big weekend. It just happens to be against our in-state rival.”

Michigan and Michigan State played once earlier this year, with the Wolverines winning, 12-4, in mid-April in Ann Arbor. Because it was a nonconference game, though, neither team used one of its top starting pitchers.

The Spartans plan to start ace Alex Troop (7-3, 2.62 ERA), a sophomore left-hander, on Thursday and Jake Lowery (2-3, 3.00), a junior right-hander, on Friday. It remains TBA for Saturday, depending on the situation the Spartans find themselves.

The Wolverines are likely to go with ace Oliver Jaske (7-2, 2.99), a junior lefty, on Thursday. Junior right-handers Alec Rennard (6-1, 3.92) and Ryan Nutof (6-2, 4.40) are likely to start the final two games, but the order is not yet clear.

Michigan State’s Alex Troop (left) will start on the mound Thursday against Michigan.

Both teams entered this season with high expectations, after both barely missed out on an NCAA Tournament bid last season.

Things have gone south for Michigan State, though, especially on offense, after a 41-run outburst in a sweep at Illinois in late March. It’s been a bit unlucky, too, losing 10 one-run games, and a game this past weekend in which it turned a rare triple play.

“That’s just the game,” Boss said. “Every cliche applies. It’s a game of inches, and all that. It’s true. We’re one hit away or two hits away from being in a very different place.

“The message to our guys is keep plugging away.”

When Michigan State finally won a one-run game, in walk-off fashion, last week at Comerica Park against Western Michigan, it celebrated wildly, even though it was just a nonconference win. A weight clearly had been lifted.

Michigan, meanwhile, has been pretty steady all season, a year after a disastrous finish cost the Wolverines an NCAA Tournament bid.

That performance left a chip on Michigan’s shoulder, Bakich said, as did last year’s season series against Michigan State, which the Spartans, won, 3-1. It comes into the series having won eight of its last 10 Big Ten games, including a weekend sweep of Purdue.

Michigan State, meanwhile, has lost nine of its last 13 Big Ten games.

Not that Michigan is expecting things to be a pushover this week. In baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, anything can happen.

Plus, Bakich and his players have learned a hard lesson about perhaps taking things from granted, given what happened down the stretch last year.

“I don’t care if we’re playing in thumb-wrestling, it’s going to be competitive,” said Bakich, whose Michigan team hasn’t won a season series against Michigan State since 2013. “It’s just gonna to be two rivals, absolutely going at it.”

MICHIGAN VS. MICHIGAN STATE

Series: Three games, Thursday-Saturday

First pitch: 4:05 p.m. Thursday at McLane Stadium, East Lansing; 6 p.m. Friday at Wilpon Complex, Ann Arbor; 1:05 p.m. Saturday at McLane Stadium

TV: Thursday, Friday on BTN-Plus; Saturday on BTN

Records: Michigan 39-12 (14-7 Big Ten); Michigan State 27-21 (9-12)

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.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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