Last season, the No. 24 Michigan baseball team (17-7 overall) dominated its season series against Michigan State — outscoring the Spartans 36-6 in a four-game sweep. This year looks like it might be more of the same; the Wolverines had an outstanding start to the season in non-conference. Michigan State on the other hand, has struggled.
The Spartans (3-18, 0-3 Big Ten) look like one of the weakest teams in the Big Ten but the Wolverines are not overlooking their in-state rival.
“I’m excited,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “I’m excited for our players. We’ve been talking about playing our rivals since we first met on August 30th. And so, we’ve got seven rivalry games this year, four with Michigan State, three with Ohio State and so, couldn’t be more excited to play those games.”
Michigan State has two clear standouts, outfielder Bryce Kelley and right-hander Mike Mokma. Kelley is leading the team in batting average at .322 and has a solid fielding percentage of .976. The Spartans lack offensive prowess — scoring more than five runs just three times this season. This obviously plays into the hands of a Michigan team that prides itself on defense and pitching.
Mokma has been the lone bright spot in the pitching lineup, as he leads the team in earned-run average (minimum two appearances) at 2.37. But as a team, Michigan State’s ERA is a disappointing 6.18. The Wolverines bats have been hot recently and they will look to continue that this weekend.
Michigan travel to East Lansing on Friday, play at home on Saturday and return to Michigan State on Sunday.
The early schedule proved that the Wolverines could hang with and beat the top teams in the country as evidenced by their 7-5 win over now-No.1 UCLA back on March 8th. But, Bakich made clear in the offseason the end goal certainly wasn’t beating non-conference opponents.
Michigan has their eyes on championships and so far, Bakich’s preseason expectations are on track. The first chance at that comes in the Big Ten. The last time the Wolverines won a regular season title was 2008 and its last Big Ten Tournament championship was 2015. That quest for a Big Ten crown starts Friday.
“We’ve got our goals set as high as you can set them,” Bakich said, “And in terms of how we’ve prepared and being around these guys every day, it feels like a championship team. But it all comes down to what we’re doing.
“The most important thing that we do is whatever we’re doing at that time. We’ve just got to continue to stay in the moment and get better every day and hopefully those goals will materialize.”
On paper, there seems to be a clear talent disparity between Michigan and the Spartans. But, just like any other contest between the two teams, the records go out the window when they play. It would be easy to play down this series as just another matchup, but instead Bakich is embracing the added meaning.
“Something that we’ve highlighted since the first day we met,” Bakich said. “The importance of playing well against our rivals. The opportunity to have the rivalries, the opportunity to, you know, be at a school like Michigan that has the best rivalries in college athletics. So it’s a privilege to get to play in those types of games…we’re very excited to open up conference play and conference play with Michigan State.”