When Michigan State takes on Maryland tonight in the Big Ten tournament, pitcher Jeff Kinley will be hoping it's simply the first step toward winning a championship and locking up a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
It's a feeling every senior will have, and not just for the fifth-seeded Spartans.
But Kinley isn't exactly like the other seniors playing this weekend at Target Field in Minneapolis.
Nine games into his junior season in 2013, the left-hander started feeling numbness in his right, non-throwing shoulder. The trainers checked it out and what Kinley first thought would be something minor turned out to be more.
He had blood clots in his shoulder and would need surgery. His season was lost and his baseball future, at the very least, was in question.
"It was a little scary once I found out more about it," Kinley said. "I really didn't know what a blood clot was. I knew a little bit about them, but I didn't know how life-threatening it could have been, so it was a little scary at first."
Fortunately for Kinley, the blood clots never moved toward his lungs and surgery solved the problem. Even with nearly all of 2013 lost, Kinley bounced back in 2014 and set the school record and led the Big Ten with 13 saves. He made 30 appearances, the most on the team and third most in the Big Ten, and finished 2-2 with a 2.45 ERA.
That, however, didn't come easily.
"At first I was a little skeptical on running just because I didn't want to have that feeling of, 'Oh man, here it is again,' " Kinley said of his initial rehab. "But I worked myself into the running and it was fine when I did."
Now, Kinley is hoping the lost year turns into a positive as Michigan State makes its final push to reach its first NCAA Tournament since 2012.
"Coming back for another year is really something special," Kinley said. "Not very many people get a fifth year so that side of it is pretty cool to be here for another year. Looking back, I'm not glad it happened but it's really not the worst thing that could have happened. I'm not upset about it. It was definitely disheartening when it happened but having this fifth year has been awesome."
And Kinley is trying to make the most of it as he transitions from the bullpen to the starting rotation. Starting was the plan coming into the season, but when sophomore Jake Lowery was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery, Kinley was forced back to the bullpen.
But during Big Ten, coach Jake Boss Jr. and pitching coach Skylar Meade realized they needed to get Kinley more work.
"We were out at Rutgers and it hit Coach Meade and myself that we played 27 innings and didn't use Jeff a whole lot," Boss said. "So for one of our better arms on the staff to not see the mound was kind of a mistake. We decided Jeff was one of our best guys and he needs to pitch more."
The next move for Michigan State's career saves leader was becoming the Sunday starter.
He made his first start in his 89th-career appearance April 26 at Indiana and went 61/3 innings and allowed one run on three hits, struck out seven and didn't issue a walk in getting the win. Entering the Big Ten tournament, Kinley is 2-2 with a 3.16 ERA as a starter and 4-3 with a 2.98 ERA and two saves overall.
Kinley hopes the Spartans do well enough that he starts this weekend in the conference tournament as they hope to overcome a rough close to the season. After reaching as high as No. 30 in the RPI rankings, Michigan State (33-21) suffered some crucial losses down the stretch, including dropping two of three to Minnesota to close the season.
Now ranked No. 48, they likely will need an impressive run to lock up an NCAA spot.
"We're trying not to think too much about (the NCAA Tournament)," Kinley said. "We're treating it like any other game but it does give you extra enthusiasm and energy to play every day because you never know, it might be your last game."
BIG TEN TOURNAMENT
(Times listed are Eastern.)
Game 1: No. 3 Michigan vs. No. 6 Indiana, 10 a.m. (BTN Plus)
Game 2: No. 2 Iowa vs. No. 7 Ohio State, 2 p.m. (BTN Plus)
Game 3: No. 1 Illinois vs. No. 8 Nebraska, 6 p.m. (BTN)
Game 4: No. 4 Maryland vs. No. 5 Michigan State, 10 p.m. (BTN)
Game 5: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, 10 a.m. (BTN Plus)
Game 6: Game 3 loser vs. Game 4 loser, 2 p.m. (BTN Plus)
Game 7: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m. (BTN)
Game 8: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 10 p.m. (BTN)
Game 9: Game 5 winner vs. Game 7 loser, 4:30 p.m. (BTN)
Game 10: Game 6 winner vs. Game 8 loser, 8:30 p.m. (BTN)
Game 11: Game 8 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 10 a.m. (BTN)
Game 12: Game 7 winner vs. Game 10 winner, 2 p.m. (BTN)
Game 13 (if necessary): Game 11 winner vs. Game 11 loser, 6 p.m. (BTN)
Game 14 (if necessary): Game 12 winner vs. Game 12 loser, 10 p.m. (BTN)
Championship: Game 11/13 winner vs. Game 12/14 winner, 2 p.m. (BTN)