Last week, under solid gray skies and in 30-degree temperatures that felt more like the 20’s, the Michigan State baseball team was able to practice outdoors in East Lansing for just the third time this winter.
The Spartans’ intrasquad scrimmage at McLane Stadium was made possible, in part, due to their heated infield – the electrically-powered infield installed in 2016 by Fields Inc. was the first of its kind in the world – and offered a short but chilly reprieve from the cabin fever the team has been fighting while practicing indoors.
MSU head coach Jake Boss said that week’s practice was the toughest of the preseason: The newness of practice was gone and game week remained a week away.
On Friday, MSU will be out of the cold with no heated infield as they open their 2020 campaign against Morehead State in Charleston, South Carolina.
Coming off the worst season of Boss’ 10 at the helm – MSU went 20-34 in 2019, watched its in-state rivals advance to the College World Series and lost incoming players to the MLB draft – they look to re-establish themselves as a competitive team in the Big Ten.
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Most importantly, they will have redshirt junior center fielder Danny Gleaves back. Gleaves’ season-ending knee injury early last season was a big blow for the Spartans; he was injured on an incredible catch against Arizona during the team’s second road trip of the season.
“It’s our job to keep him healthy,” Boss said. “The kid plays so hard.” Gleaves has been beaten up over the years but is far and away MSU’s most important player, roaming the outfield with elite speed and perhaps hitting at the top of the batting order.
“One of the fastest guys I’ve ever coached,” Boss said.
The Spartans will have nearly an entirely new infield, with redshirt sophomore Peter Ahn at first base, freshman Dillon Kark (Orchard Lake St. Mary’s) at shortstop and senior Bailey Peterson at second base. In the outfield, Boss is comfortable with his experienced outfield and highly-regarded freshman Jack Frank figures to receive ample playing time.
Though MSU appears to be challenged with power, Boss is eager to see how the team shakes out offensively.
“We’ll see,” he said. “It’s a good question, but that’s what makes it fun this time of the year. Position-wise, there are some question marks, but I do feel good about the depth. We have a lot of interchangeable parts.”
Boss is decidedly less solid on his pitching staff: Last June, MSU lost left-hander Mitchell Tyranski (12th round, Dodgers) and righty Indigo Diaz (27th round, Braves) to the MLB draft, as well as a trio of incoming freshman.
“We’re kind of thin numbers-wise, so it’s going to be all hands on deck,” Boss said. “It’s tough to fill those holes and the staff is thin, but with that said, each guy knows their roles, which are very clear.”
MSU’s starting rotation will be led by redshirt junior Mason Erla, a low-to-mid 90 m.p.h. righty, followed by senior lefty Jarret Olson and senior righty Sam Benschoter. Boss will rely heavily on the experience of those three to eat up innings.
Though Boss’ Spartans have quietly found their way professionally – the team has had multiple MLB draft picks in nine of his 10 years – they now face an upstart Michigan team that grabbed headlines throughout the summer.
“It’s your rival, so it doesn’t matter how good we are, how good they are, or how bad either one of us is,” Boss said. “I think you always want to go out and compete against guys like that. I think it was great for the league. I think the country is starting to see that we play good baseball n this league and it’s about time, to be quite honest with you, because it’s something that we’ve known for a long time.
“Sure, it’s motivation for us, but the fact that it’s our rival, that doesn’t really change anything. The cliches about the rivalry are true: They don’t like us, we don’t like them, we like to compete against each other, and that’s never going to change.”