Spartans strong, but not sharp enough

Michigan State head coach Jake Boss didn’t schedule South Carolina in a pursuit of moral victories.  A top-25 team, playing in front of more than 6,500 fans, a competitive showing against the Southeastern Conference club would be good enough for a lot of teams. But the Spartans have the same goal as the Gamecocks, to reach the College World Series, and only victories which stand in the win-loss record matter in that pursuit. For as well as Michigan State played against the 2010 and 2011 national champions in Friday night’s 3-2 loss, the loss is just that, a loss, and close isn’t good enough when you’re striving to be the best.

“I thought we had a couple opportunities that we weren’t able to take advantage of and we made a couple mistakes that they did take advantage of and that’s what good teams do, they take advantage of the opportunities that you give them,” Boss said.

Against the eighth-ranked team in the country, Michigan State’s opportunities outnumbered South Carolina’s, and the team capitalized early to score first in Founders Park.

With one out in the top of the third, freshman left fielder Danny Gleaves singled to the left field, advancing to second on a fielder’s choice one batter later. The first runner in scoring position against South Carolina pitcher Clarke Schmidt, Gleaves was batted in by sophomore third baseman Marty Bechina on a liner up the middle, putting the Spartans in front 1-0.

With Schmidt and Michigan State left-handed pitcher Alex Troop locked in a pitcher’s duel, for the first half of the game the lone run stood tall.

Picking up five strikeouts in the first two innings, after Gleaves’ run, Schmidt was back to racking up the punchouts, with two strikeouts in the fourth and another in a three-batter fifth inning.

The K-count wasn’t as gaudy, but Troop was equally dialed in.

The sophomore southpaw sat the Gamecocks down in order in the first two innings and worked around a hit batter in the third and walk on in the fourth. At the game’s midpoint, South Carolina had yet to strike Troop for a hit.

“Alex was lights out, he was one of the best guys in the country tonight,” said Boss, Michigan State’s ninth-year head coach.

But in the blink of an eye, Troop’s no-hitter, shutout and Michigan State’s lead was gone.

A lengthy umpire meeting ended the top of the fifth on a reversal of a safe call that saw Spartan second baseman Dan Durkin reach first on a fielder’s choice, changed to a 3-6-1 double play. With the aid of the umpires to end the Michigan State at-bat, the Gamecocks were spurred by the aid of the Spartans in their trip to the plate.

USC third baseman Alex Destino skied a ball to shallow right field, misplayed by MSU right fielder Dan Chmielewski. The ball dropping beyond Chmielewski’s glove, Destino reached second base on the error. South Carolina second baseman LT Tolbert was unable to successfully sacrifice Destino over, striking out after two failed bunt attempts, giving Michigan State a brief reprieve.

But the quality team they are, South Carolina made the most of the extra opportunity. USC shortstop Madison Stokes stroked the first offering from Troop over the left field wall for a two-run home run, giving the Gamecocks their first hit, run and lead.

The home run would be just one of three hits Troop surrendered in a 99-pitch complete game. A leadoff single in the sixth was erased by next at-bat double play, but the third USC hit led their third run, with the team again taking advantage on an opportunity provided.

With one down in the bottom of the seventh, Bride turned on a 2-1 offering from Troop for a line drive to left center. The ball escaped the outstretched glove of diving center fielder Bandon Hughes, leading to a standup triple. Tolbert again was unable to advance Bride, but striking out on a ball in the dirt, Tolbert forced a throw to first. After MSU catcher Matt Byars threw down to putout Tolbert, Bride broke for home, beating the throw from Zack McGuire to push USC’s lead to 3-1.

MSU responded in their next at-bat, but were unable to fully seize their opportunity.

Durkin led off the eighth with a single to left and moved up 90 feet on a wild pitch with Bechina at the plate. Bechina was hit by a pitch to put the first two runners on base, giving the Spartans two in scoring position a batter later after a successful sacrifice bunt by McGuire. Hughes grounded out to Tolbert at second base, but the ball to the right side was enough to bring in Durkin. Representing the tying run, Bechina was stranded at third base, keeping the game 3-2, the score holding until the end.

Bechina and Hughes each picked up two hits as Michigan State out-hit South Carolina 9-3, but the Spartans left eight runners on base to the Gamecocks’ two.

“We scattered nine hits, and I thought we came in with a good approach, but we struck out 14 times and so when you can’t move the baseball with runners in scoring position, it’s hard to score,” Boss said. “Every time Schmidt needed a big strikeout he got it. Nine hits is fine but when you don’t score off those hits, it doesn’t really matter.”

Schmidt, exiting after the Bechina free base, scattered eight hits in 7.1 innings, but seven were singles, a sixth-inning double by Hughes the lone extra-base hit. Going toe-to-toe with one of the best pitchers in the country, Troop struck out six batters against one walk.

““He made one mistake and the guy got the barrel out on the home run,” Boss said.

“That was a tough loss for Alex, but he was as good as anybody, anywhere in the country tonight and Alex can beat anybody. I’m very proud of the way he pitched tonight, but unfortunately it was kind of a hard-luck loss situation for him.”

Falling to 9-3 on the season, Michigan State looks to receive the same quality start when Ethan Landon takes the ball for Saturday’s game. But also, to better support their pitcher by capitalizing on opportunities when at the plate and not giving extra opportunities to the Gamecocks in the field. Doing so will show that they’re not just close to South Carolina’s level, they are there and with a tally to the win column.

“We’ll need to be better tomorrow, we need to be cleaner tomorrow and we need to take advantage of the opportunities that we get.”

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