EAST LANSING, Mich. – Behind strong pitching and stellar defense, the Michigan State baseball team defeated Minnesota, 4-2, in the Big Ten home opener for the Spartans Friday afternoon at McLane Baseball Stadium.
Senior right-hander Kurt Wunderlich improved to 6-1 on the mound after striking out six and allowing two runs in 6 1/3 innings, while Tony Wieber picked up his team-leading fourth save of the season by tossing 2 1/3 scoreless innings.
Wunderlich and Wieber were the beneficiaries of numerous outstanding plays in the field for Michigan State, including two diving catches by left fielder Jordan Keur and several stops by second baseman Ryan Jones, who ended up with eight assists and two putouts.
Timely hitting also propelled Michigan State (18-7, 3-1 Big Ten) to the win, as three of its four runs came with two outs.
“We were fortunate to make some big plays today defensively, and we pitched it very well,” said MSU head coach Jake Boss, who won his 100th career game as a head coach. “We pride ourselves in playing good defense. When you make routine plays routinely, it seems like great plays tend to follow along afterward. It helps guys’ confidence and it helps the pitchers on the mound.”
“I love it when those guys are diving all around, getting dirty and coming up with blood on them,” said first baseman Jeff Holm, who had 11 putouts. “It’s great to see that – they’re just playing for their team.”
The top three hitters in the MSU lineup – Brandon Eckerle, Ryan Jones and Holm – recorded six of MSU’s nine hits on the day. Eckerle led off the bottom of the first with a double, advanced to third on a single by Jones, and scored on a Torsten Boss sacrifice fly.
Although it was only a 1-0 lead, it was enough for Wunderlich to work with as he cruised through the first six innings, giving up just four hits and one walk.
“I felt really good out there today, even in warm-ups,” said Wunderlich. “It’s always a confidence booster to get a lead early in the game. Jones picked me up two to three times, Keur had two diving catches, and Scanlon had one late. They did a lot of work out there for me.”
“That’s what Kurt gives us on Fridays,” said Boss. “He’s an outstanding competitor and he’s able to get deep into the game.”
Gopher starter TJ Oakes, a 6-5, 235-pound right-hander, settled down after the first and retired nine of the next 10 Spartans.
But MSU got to Oakes in the fifth and extended its lead, putting up three runs to make to 4-0. Freshman catcher Joel Fisher nailed a one-out double to center, went to third on a Jeff Kinley single, and came home to score on a fielder’s choice as Eckerle just beat the throw at first on a near double-play ball.
Eckerle’s hustle paid off.
With two outs, Jones followed with his second single to put runners on first and second. That’s when Holm delivered the biggest hit of the game. After popping out and grounding out in his first two at-bats, Holm came through with a clutch triple to the gap in left-center that plated Eckerle and Jones.
“Coach Boss pulled me aside right before I stepped in the box and said, `don’t try to do too much,'” said Holm. “So I took a little bit off, I wasn’t so anxious, and thankfully got a good pitch to hit.”
“We’ve worked really hard in our approach with two outs, and fortunately Jeff came through for us in a big situation there,” said Boss.
Minnesota (10-10, 2-2) finally scored in the seventh, but it could have been worse for Michigan State.
Gopher first baseman Dan Olinger connected on a two-out, bases-loaded single up the middle to score two runs that knocked out Wunderlich out of the game, bringing in Wieber with runners on first and second. A wild pitch from Wieber moved the runners to second and third, and a walked loaded the bases. MSU got out of the jam as Andy Henkemyer hit a line shot right to Boss at third base for the third out.
“We like to go to Tony at the end of the game, he’s a guy that wants the ball,” said Boss. “We feel good about extending him a little bit, especially on Friday in a big game in the series. He’s able to really settle in there, and was able to do that again today.”
Minnesota got the leadoff hitter on in the ninth with a single to right field, but couldn’t move along the runner any further as Spartan shortstop Justin Scanlon made another impressive defensive play for MSU. Scanlon stopped a hard hit ball up the middle, stepped on second, and tossed the ball over to first to get the double play and end the Gopher threat.
“Minnesota is not going to beat themselves,” said Boss. “They’re really well coached and very talented, and we’re to have to play well again tomorrow to beat them.”
Game two of the three-game series is set for Saturday at 1:05 p.m. in McLane Baseball Stadium. Audio of the game will be available for free at spartansportsnetwork.com.