Michigan State baseball surges behind strong April

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — If there wasn't a lot of buzz around McLane Stadium in early spring, it was understandable.

While Michigan State's baseball team was scuffling its way from a difficult nonconference season into a challenging start to Big Ten play, most of the attention in East Lansing was fixated on the basketball team's run to the Final Four.

The day after the basketball team beat Louisville to win its first regional title since 2010, the baseball team came up short in the final game of a weekend series against Illinois. Six games into conference, Michigan State played the two best teams — Ohio State and Illinois — and went 2-4.

The Spartans were 12-13 overall, and any idea of playing in the postseason seemed far-fetched at best.

But just as the basketball team quietly began putting things together for its postseason run, the baseball team has been doing the same thing, going 15-4 in April and winning 17 of its last 22 games.

"I think it started in April when we were able to get back outside and start practicing out here on our field," coach Jake Boss said last weekend after a victory over Purdue. "It's not an excuse, it's a reality when you're playing up north. We go out someplace on Thursday and we're back here on Sunday night and we practice inside the rest of the week. ...

"This year it started to turn after the Ohio State series. We got back and were able to practice on our field and we started to see the ball a little bit better."

Once the calendar flipped to April, so did the Spartans.

They hit .322 and outscored their opponents 139-82 behind senior first baseman Ryan Krill, who hit .418 and drove in 25 runs. Left fielder Cam Gibson hit .392 and senior third baseman Mark Weist hit .321.

Entering this weekend's series against Penn State, Michigan State is second in the Big Ten in hitting at .294. while Gibson's 49 runs scored are tops in the conference and Krill is second in RBIs (47) and third in home runs (nine).

But getting to play outdoors is just one reason the Spartans have undergone a resurgence.

"Just like (Mark) Dantonio and (Tom) Izzo said, your seniors have got to be the guys to lead you, and they have been," Boss said. "We're just playing well."

It's been quite the shift from a disappointing 2014 season.

Despite a loss last Sunday to Purdue, consistency over the last month-plus has been turning Michigan State into a team that can start thinking about the postseason. It was the second loss in the last 12 games, and the Spartans have rocketed up the RPI rankings — No. 40 with seven games to play.

The Spartans, however, insist they aren't watching the rankings.

"Not much," said Krill, in the midst of a 12-game hitting streak. "We're focusing on the Big Ten. We look at the standings all the time and make sure we're still in it, but as long as we keep playing well like we have been, we will be where we want to be at the end of the season."

At 11-7 in the Big Ten, a regular-season title is all but out of the question, but the conference tournament awaits, and Michigan State then hopes its name is called for the NCAA Tournament. Krill and the senior class made the field as freshmen in 2012 and were the first team out in 2013.

"The more experience you have in this game the better off you're gonna be," Krill said. "We've learned from the last couple of years but we don't dwell on it."

Lessons learned combined with a resume bolstered by a tough schedule help.

Michigan State has five wins over the RPI top 50 — Illinois (8), Ohio State (19), Coastal Carolina (22), Southeastern Louisiana (31) and Notre Dame (47). It also took on No. 4 UCLA early and swept a three-game series at Oregon when the Ducks were No. 23.

It leaves the Spartans heading down the stretch, ready to make a late-season push that could get people buzzing about baseball.

"It's a talented group, so when we play well we're a tough team to beat," Boss said. "The last two years we could play well and still lose. I don't know that we've played well and lost much this year. We have a lot of talent in that dugout and a lot of guys that have played a lot of baseball here."