Spartans' hopes go beyond Big Ten tourney

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Jordan Zimmerman

Michigan State could've used a better draw.

Then again, it could've used a better finish, too.

"I think guys started to press a little bit, which is natural a little bit," coach Jake Boss Jr. said. "You can kind of feel the collective weight off our shoulders."

Michigan State figured to clinch its spot in the eight-team Big Ten baseball tournament long before it actually did, in the second-to-last game of the regular season, a 4-3, 13-inning walk-off win over Maryland on Friday in East Lansing.

That was the Spartans' first win in five games, but was the one they needed to get in -- though it created some complications.

Ranked in Baseball America's top 25 multiple times earlier in the season, Michigan State (34-18) settled for a No. 7 seed, so it will open against red-hot Nebraska, which just happens to be playing less than an hour from home, with the tournament in Omaha.

Nebraska (37-18), the No. 2 seed coached by longtime major-league outfielder Darin Erstad, won 11 of its final 14 regular-season games, including two out of three in a series at Michigan State in early May.

"They take on the personality of their head coach," Boss said of Nebraska and Erstad, the epitome of grit and hustle during his 14-year major-league career. "That's the type of guy he is, the type of player he was, and they play the same way."

Boss, in his eighth season on the job, has taken Michigan State to one NCAA tournament, in 2012.

The Spartans made a case to be the sixth Big Ten in last year, but only five – nevertheless a conference-record – ended up making it.

Big Ten baseball tournament schedule

Just making the Big Ten tournament is no longer the goal.

"Our guys have taken the program to a point where it is expected," Boss said. "Maybe that was part of the reason some guys were pressing. Mathematically, we weren't in yet, and guys knew that. We wanted to get that taken care of and accomplished as soon as possible."

At least by not waiting until the regular-season finale, Michigan State is able to get its rotation in order, with ace lefty Cam Vieaux getting Nebraska.

Whether the offense -- led by junior-college transfer Jordan Zimmerman (.386/.475/.604), who had a 21-game hitting streak this season -- can shake its inconsistency is the biggest question mark. The Spartans have averaged fewer than three runs in their last eight games.


No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 2 Nebraska

When: Wednesday, 2 p.m.

Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.

TV: Big Ten Network

Records: Michigan State 34-18, Nebraska 37-18

Probables: Michigan State LHP Cam Vieaux (6-4, 2.41) vs. Nebraska RHP Derek Burkamper (6-2, 2.77)

At stake: On Thursday, winner faces Indiana-Maryland winner at 6 p.m., loser faces Indiana-Maryland loser at 10 p.m.