This time last year, graduate center fielder Joe Stewart was a different man, both mentally and materially. After a long and winding road, Stewart suited up for his childhood team to play their biggest rival, in what he believed would be his final season as a baseball player.
But baseball has a funny way of having the unexpected come to pass, and Stewart is a prime example. 341 days after donning Michigan State’s green and white, Stewart now wears the maize and blue.
“I loved Michigan State growing up,” Stewart said. “Michigan State will always be a part of me. But being a Wolverine this year has been awesome. Just talking to (Michigan coach Erik Bakich) and the guys on this team has been a really amazing opportunity for my growth as a player.
“A lot of people probably can’t grasp the fact I did that. But at the end of the day, I didn’t do it in spite of Michigan State or any of the guys over there, it was a decision that was best for me and something I couldn’t turn down.”
While Stewart struggled to consistently find the lineup in East Lansing, he has breathed life into a Wolverines squad that in turn has come to rely on him as one of its leaders in both the lineup and the clubhouse. Stewart currently leads the team in hits and stolen bases, while ranking top five in nearly every other batting category.
Off the field, though, his work ethic is lauded as an equally big contribution.
“Growing up as a kid in Michigan, sometimes you don’t have the repetitions that kids in sunbelt states get,” Bakich said. “Joe’s one of those players that just needed those reps and keeps getting better year after year because of them. The athleticism just oozes out of him.”
While this weekend’s series against the Spartans will carry significant emotional weight — both for Stewart and the rest of the Wolverines — Michigan State statistically will be one of the lower ranked teams in the last third of Michigan’s schedule.
Entering the weekend, Michigan State finds itself in a free fall. Despite starting over .500 on the year, the Spartans have suffered a severe slump since April 1, going 1-6 to start the month.
That cold streak has made a significant negative impact on their RPI ranking, as they’ve dropped from their highest rank of 43rd all the way down to 177.
That being said, the Wolverines can’t underestimate their rival. Michigan State’s lineup carries four batters hitting over .300, in large part due to their patience at the plate.
Of particular concern for Michigan’s pitching staff will be sophomore infielder Mitch Jebb. While Jebb possesses some power, the real danger comes from his eye for the ball — having posted a .440 on-base percentage in his 29 games played.
Jebb and the rest of the Spartans lineup create an intriguing mismatch with the Wolverines’ pitching staff, as it continues to try and fix struggles with walking batters.
“We have a goal to throw 60% strikes in a game,” Bakich said, following Michigan’s 14-5 loss to Notre Dame Tuesday. “Before tonight we had met that goal for eight straight games. Now we gotta get back on track.”
On the opposite side of the scorecard, the Wolverines will look to capitalize off Michigan State’s starting pitchers, as its starter — sophomore right-hander Harrison Cook — remains winless on the year with a 9.85 ERA. Saturday will likely see the Spartans’ starting sophomore left-hander Nick Powers, who posts a 4.89 ERA and a 2-3 record in eight starts.
With such an ideal offensive matchup, Stewart and the rest of Michigan’s lineup will look to capitalize. For Stewart especially, it will be a welcome opportunity to leave a lasting impact on his former home.
“I’ve talked to guys here and there,” Stewart said. “I’ve already started to hear some ‘Hey, see you next week’ stuff. It’s gonna be fun, I’m excited for it.”