It might not count in the conference standings, but don’t tell Anthony Toth that the Michigan baseball team’s series against Michigan State doesn’t mean anything.
“It’s Michigan State,” the fifth-year senior second baseman said. “It’s dumb that they’re off our schedule for Big Ten since it is one of our rivals, but it’s still Michigan State. We don’t like them and they don’t like us.”
Since the Big Ten decided to rotate opponents for each Big Ten team in an eight-series conference schedule, the two rivals’ games this weekend will be considered a non-conference affair. The two teams will play Friday and Sunday in Ann Arbor while Saturday afternoon’s game will be held in East Lansing. Friday’s game will be the Wolverines’ first home game of the year.
The in-state foes started off their seasons going in opposite directions. Michigan lost its first seven games and dropped to 2-11 before eventually climbing up to 6-12 after a sweep in the Oesetrike Classic at Eastern Michigan last weekend. The Spartans, however, came out of the gates hot. They are 12-5 and currently lead the Big Ten in both batting average (.335) and ERA (2.74).
“We’ve typically been on the other side of it,” Michigan coach Rich Maloney said. “The early season has been a little bit reversed from what we’ve usually experienced. If you can win the series, then all of a sudden, you can certainly make up for some ills.”
Michigan’s pitching, which had been a sore spot for much of the early spring, started to come around in Ypsilanti last weekend as all three starters registered quality starts. In a series that brought a smile to Maloney’s face, Michigan’s starting pitchers picked up two wins, both of which were polished off with saves.
Maloney will start the same three starters who threw last weekend — though in a different order. Redshirt sophomore Bobby Brosnahan, who pitched 7.1 innings in a win over Oakland on Saturday, will start on Friday. In East Lansing, redshirt sophomore Tyler Mills will get the nod and sophomore Kyle Clark will take the mound on Sunday.
“Hopefully last weekend was a little warm-up for those guys,” Toth said. “To see Bobby back to his true form like he was last year, it’s good for him and it’s good for the rest of the team. Clark’s past four outings have really been lights out. He’s really pitching and not just throwing. Guys have a lot of confidence in him.”
If Michigan’s pitching is able to maintain its performance from last weekend, the games could turn out to be pitching duels as Michigan State’s starters average a 2.18 ERA. And even though the Wolverines picked up three wins last weekend, their bats weren’t exactly on fire. Division-III Alma College held Michigan to four runs in a 12-inning game last Friday and the Wolverines averaged just 3.67 runs per game in the series.
Michigan State’s offensive attack is spearheaded by infielders Torsten Boss, Ryan Jones and Jeff Holm — all three of which were named to All-Big Ten teams last season. But, it’s senior Brandon Eckerle who has been the Spartans’ most pleasant surprise this year. The leadoff-hitting centerfielder leads the Big Ten in batting (.500), on-base percentage (.556) and hits (36).
The series against the Spartans will provide a change of pace — the Wolverines have dealt with non-conference opponents and have yet to face a traditional rival.
“They’re a team that comes out with a lot of hooting and hollering, and we need to make sure that we match their intensity and hopefully get up on them early,” Toth said.
While the Wolverines would love to take the series from Michigan State, they also know they can’t afford to be deflated for the first conference series against Indiana next weekend if they underperform against the Spartans.
“There’s going to be more motivation,” Toth said. “There’s going to be more energy. So we’re looking forward to them coming into our house and us being able to hopefully open our home season with a big win over them.”