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Michigan State explodes for 41 runs in 3-game sweep

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Whatever the heck they have for a batter’s eye in Champaign, Ill., Michigan State might want to consider some future renovations at McLane Baseball Stadium in East Lansing.

“That’s right,” Michigan State baseball coach Jake Boss said with a laugh Sunday night. “Whatever we can do to replicate that.”

The Spartans had a weekend series for the ages against the Illini, scoring 41 runs in a three-game sweep at Illinois Field.

It was capped off with a 17-6 victory Sunday in which the Spartans hit a whopping eight home runs, the most in a game in the nation this season.

Leading the way was junior outfielder Brandon Hughes, who homered in each of his first three at-bats and finished the game with seven RBIs.

He finished the series with 12 RBIs — 44 percent of his freshman total (27) and 39 percent of his sophomore total (31).

Hughes had nine home runs in his career entering play Sunday, and that included his only one of this season, which came Saturday.

“I don’t even think I’ve ever even had two in a game,” Hughes said as the team was loading up the bus for the trip back to East Lansing. “It was pretty fun.

“Everyone was swinging it pretty well.”

Well, that’s quite the understatement.

Michigan State (15-5), which could jump into the national rankings this week after the 3-0 start in Big Ten play, was a good offensive team a year ago, but really struggled down the stretch, costing itself a shot at an NCAA Tournament bid.

Boss felt the pieces were there for an explosive offense this season; he just was hoping for more consistency.

But even he couldn’t have imagined this kind of consistency — the Spartans have scored 11, 12, 12 and 17 runs their last four games.

“We really saw the ball well all weekend long,” Boss said. “It didn’t seem like we chased many balls out of the strike zone.

“When guys are locked in, they’re putting good swings on pitches.”

Illinois is not exactly the cream of the crop in the Big Ten. The Illini have serious pitching issues; the Spartans exploited them in earning their first three-game sweep in the history of the series.

Boss is intrigued to see how his team responds this week, with a Tuesday nonconference game against a good Western Michigan team, followed by a home series with Minnesota, a good Big Ten team.

Both teams made the NCAA Tournament a year ago.

As for Hughes, he started the season at leadoff, then scuffled a bit, so coaches moved him down to the fifth and sixth slot to relieve a little pressure. He started seeing more fastballs, pouncing on them, and because of injuries, he’s back at leadoff.

A mechanical tweak helped, too.

“One of our assistant coaches, Coach (Jonathan) Roof, likes to say, ‘This ain’t no ballet,’” Hughes said.

“I was dancing a little bit in the box.”

He had a hit and two RBIs in the opener against Illinois, then three hits and three RBIs in the second game.

Then he homered his first three times up Sunday, twice batting left-handed and once batting right-handed.

Hughes had more cracks at another home run, but walked and then grounded out his last time up.

“I took a big swing, but I was out in front of the last at-bat,” Hughes said of the grounder to second.

Sophomore third baseman Marty Bechina had two homers Sunday, and senior second baseman Dan Durkin, sophomore DH (when he’s not pitching) Alex Troop and sophomore outfielder Dan Chmielewski each had one.

For the weekend, Michigan State banged out 37 hits, including 12 home runs, and batted .316 as a team.

There was a whole lot of hooping and hollering in that visiting dugout Saturday and Sunday, but, of course, nobody said much to Hughes, at least not after his third home run — which is the most by a Michigan State player since at least 2006, when records started getting kept more meticulously (same with the team’s eight homers).

That’s the baseball way of communicating with a player on the brink of something really historic, like a no-hitter, perfect game or a — gasp — four-homer game, which would’ve tied an NCAA record.

“Nobody said a whole lot to be honest,” Boss said. “We had the silent treatment in there for a couple players. Marty Bechina got it after his second of the day. It was a fun day.