Entering the weekend, the bad news was that the Michigan State University baseball team was reeling amidst a five-game losing streak. The worse news was that the next team on the schedule was the first-place Nebraska Cornhuskers.
While MSU failed to win the home series, the Spartans did steal one win from the Huskers, and came a hair’s breadth away from a second victory in an action-packed weekend of play.
In Friday night’s Big Ten Network televised game, it was the pitchers who were on display. Spartan junior right-handed pitcher Mason Erla started for Michigan State and proceeded to strike-out six of the first nine Cornhusker batters that he faced. There was no score through three innings.
But, Erla opened the fourth inning by hitting a Nebraska batter with a pitch. A one-out double then scored the first run of the afternoon for the visitors, and a sacrifice ground-out a few batters later made the score 2-0.
Then, in the top of the fifth inning, a nearly identical scenario played out, this time with two outs. Erla hit a Cornhusker batter with a pitch and a double by the next batter scored a run. A few batters later, a throwing error would score a fourth, unearned run to drive the Nebraska lead to 4-0.
The day would be over for Erla, as would the scoring for the afternoon. The Spartan did threaten to score in both the bottom of the fifth and the bottom of the sixth innings. In the fifth inning, the Spartan rally was snuffed out when senior left fielder Bryce Kelley was caught attempting the steal third base. In the sixth inning, senior first baseman Bailey Peterson hit into a double play with the bases loaded to end the inning.
The Spartans managed just five hits on the evening and Mason Erla (3-3) earned his third loss of the year.
On Saturday, while fans inside Spartan Stadium were enjoying the spring football practice, the Spartans once again faced Nebraska a few hundred yards away at McLane Stadium at Kobs Field. A light drizzle in East Lansing not only moistened the fans at the spring game, it also delayed the beginning of the baseball game by 30 minutes.
Soon after the first pitch cleared home plate, the Cornhuskers drew first blood. Spartan freshman starting left-handed pitcher Nick Powers gave up a lead-off single and, after a strikeout, hit Nebraska’s third batter with a pitch. A throwing error then led to the first run of the game for the visitors.
MSU tied the game in the top of the third inning when a double by junior third baseman Zach Iverson was followed up up by an RBI single from the bat of freshman first baseman Brock Vradenburg to make the score 1-1.
Nebraska then retook the lead with a lead-off home run in the top of the fourth inning to take the score to 2-1. From that point on, the Spartan pitching and defense kept a lid on the Huskers, allowing only one more hit and no runs over the final five inning.
The Spartans, however, were not done scoring. In the bottom of the fifth inning, the Green and White staged a small rally, catalyzed by a trio of singles from freshman catcher Gabe Sortes, Zach Iverson, and Vradenburg to give the Spartans the lead, 3-2.
Then, after the seventh-inning stretch, MSU added an insurance run when sophomore right fielder Casey Mayes hit a lead-off double that was followed by an RBI single from Iverson. Iverson went 3-for-3 from the plate on the afternoon, with two RBIs and two runs score. Vradenburg’s stat line of 2-for-2 with an RBI was almost as impressive.
But, it was the MSU pitchers who really stole the show. Starter Nick Powers (4-2) earned the win with 5.0 innings pitched in which he gave up two runs (but only one earned) on four hits and four walks and with five strikeouts. Spartan sophomore right-handed reliever Burrell Jones earn his second save of the year by giving up only one hit and no runs over 4.0 innings, while also dealing five strikeouts.
In the rubber match of the weekend on Sunday afternoon, once again Nebraska got onto the board in the first inning. Spartans’ redshirt-sophomore right-handed starting pitcher Wyatt Rush got off to a rough start. He gave up a single, walked three batters, and hit a fourth all in the span of the first seven Nebraska batters.
Just two outs into the game and with the bases load and two runs already across home plate, Michigan State head coach went to the bullpen to the left-handed junior Jesse Heikkinen. Heikkinen proceeded to walk in a run in the next at bat, but followed the walk up with a strikeout to stop the bleeding at 3-0.
Then, in the top of the second inning, the Huskers would double their lead to 6-0 off of a walk, two singles, and a double from Nebraska. Heikkinen was able to get out of the inning with a pair of strikeouts, but his day was then over as well.
In the bottom of the second inning, the Spartans responded. It started with a pair of walks to freshman infielder Trent Farquhar and sophomore left fielder Casey Mayes. Then, freshman third baseman Dillon Kark was hit by a pitch to load the bases. All three Spartans would then score on the combination of back-to-back singles from junior catcher Adam Proctor and sophomore pinch hitter and first baseman Reese Trahey to cut the Husker lead down to 6-3.
In the top of the third inning, senior right-hander Sam Benschoter took the mound for the Spartans and proceeded to strike-out the first three Cornhusker batters that he faced. Then, in the bottom of the third inning, the Spartans would rally once again.
The rally stared with a walk to freshman designated hitter Jack Frank and then senior infielder Bailey Peterson got on base due to an error by the Nebraska short stop. Farquhar then hit a two RBI-double down the right field line to trim the lead to just 6-5. A throwing error on the play allowed Farquar to reach third base, and he crossed home plate to tie the score on a sacrifice fly from Mayes.
The game then settled into a pitchers’ duel. For the Spartans, Benschoter was outstanding. Through the top of the ninth inning, Benschoter allowed only two hits, rang up 14 strikeouts, and kept the Cornhuskers scoreless.
But the Nebraska pitchers were also up to the task. They allowed a total of six hits after the Spartans tied the score through the bottom of the ninth inning, but they were scattered throughout the game such that the Spartans never had more than one hit or stranded more than one runner per inning. The game headed to extra innings with the score tied at six all.
The extra frames were drama filled. In the top of the 10th inning, Nebraska led off with a triple and seemed poised to take back the lead. But, Benschoter and the Spartan defense were able to hold firm thanks to a strikeout, an infield single, and a double play.
MSU was able to place runners on second and third base with two outs in the bottom 10th, but failed to score due to a ground out by Dillon Kark. Then, in the bottom of the 11th inning, pinch runner freshman Gabe Sortes attempted to win the game by trying to score from second base off of a single to shallow center field from sophomore right fielder Zaid Walker. But, Sotres was gunned down at home plate to end the inning.
JAXON HALLMARK WANTS TO PLAY MORE BASEBALL. pic.twitter.com/koc0Vqw2Kl— Nebraska Baseball (@Husker_Baseball) April 25, 2021
Then, in the top of the 12th inning, the dam finally broke. Nebraska was able to put a run on Benschoter thanks to a walk, a stolen base, a throwing error, and then an RBI single. The Cornhuskers then added two insurance runs to bring the score to 9-6. In the bottom of the 12th inning, the Spartans did get a one-out double, but that was all, and the Green and White fell to Nebraska, 9-6.
Final score: NEB 9, MSU 6 - 12 innings— Michigan State Baseball (@statebaseball) April 25, 2021
Spartans fall in heartbreaker, rallying from down 6-0 early.
What a relief outing by Sam Benschoter, 9.1 IP, career-high 1⃣7⃣ Ks! The most strikeouts by a Spartan since Mark Mulder had 16 in 1998!
⚾️#GoGreen | @sam_benschoter pic.twitter.com/lzXbcGsixA
Despite his outstanding outing, Benschoter (1-3) was credited with the loss. The right-hander from Tecumseh, Michigan pitched 9.1 innings and threw 17 total strikeouts. This almost doubled his previous career high of 10 and was the most from a Spartan since Mark Mulder’s 16-K day in 1998.
Benschoter’s performance was so impressive that he was included in the National Players of the Week List by the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper publication. The list included a select group of 12 players from around the country. He earned Co-Big Ten Pitcher of the Week honors as well.
Benschoter named to @CBNewspaper National Players Of Week List!— Michigan State Baseball (@statebaseball) April 26, 2021
--Career-high 1⃣7⃣ Ks - T-most in @B1Gbaseball / T-2nd-most in @NCAACWS this season.
--Most in modern-day MSU history, topping @markmulder20's 16 K in '98.
⚾️#GoGreen | @sam_benschoter pic.twitter.com/0ZWrw72Y1T
The results of the weekend puts MSU’s record to just 12-17 overall this season, and drops the Spartans to 10th place in the Big Ten behind Northwestern (12-15) but ahead of Purdue (10-18).
The Green and White return to action on Friday with a road trip to State College to face the 13th place Penn State Nittany Lions (9-18) in a three-game series. The action can be followed with live stats, live audio from TCF Bank Spartan Media Network, and live streaming from Big Ten Network+ with links available at MSUSpartans.com.