EAST LANSING — It’s hard to estimate the full impact of Michigan State’s win over Oregon State until the baseball season ends.
One thing is certain, especially from the Spartans’ past experiences: an unranked team beating one of the nation’s best can only boost both MSU’s confidence and its case for a potential NCAA tournament berth.
“It enables these young guys to really believe they can beat anybody,” MSU coach Jake Boss said. “We’ve been talking about it since September. But when they actually go out and do it, it’s an eye-opener for them. They realize they can play with and beat anybody in the country.”
The Spartans get another significant test this weekend when they head to Starksville, Miss., for the Mississippi State Diamond Classic. MSU will face the ranked host Bulldogs twice, sandwiched in between a pair of games with Eastern Illinois.
Every early-season win over a ranked team is important for the Spartans.
Mississippi State, which was ranked No. 4 in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll, is now 4-4 on the season. The Bulldogs have fallen to 15th in this week’s National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association poll and No. 18 in both the Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball rankings.
Then over spring break the following week, the Spartans play three games at TCU. The Horned Frogs are 12th in the Collegiate Baseball poll and 16th by both the NCBWA and Baseball America.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” Boss said. “With Mississippi State this weekend and TCU next weekend, it’s just as difficult. We have to continue to play well. But it’s more opportunities to build that resume.”
The victory over Oregon State was a significant building block. The Beavers were the highest-ranked opponent MSU has ever defeated — No. 1 by the NCBWA and No. 3 by both Baseball America and the preseason USA Today Coaches poll.
“I think beating Oregon State will be a significant feather in Michigan State’s cap come selection day,” said Aaron Fitt, Baseball America’s college editor. “The Beavers are going to win a lot of games this year, and they will likely be a top-10 RPI team, so beating them will likely provide a meaningful RPI boost.”
MSU senior catcher Joel Fisher hit a first-inning grand slam and drove in the tying run in the ninth on a Beavers error to give the Spartans an 8-7 victory, finishing 3 for 5 with five RBIs and two runs scored. Freshman Jake Lowery pitched 11⁄3 innings of scoreless relief for the victory, getting a double play in the bottom of the ninth to seal the biggest win so far in Boss’ six seasons.
“The best thing that could happen following the win over Oregon State is to have another weekend with contests against another team expected to be in Omaha,” Chris Webb, editor of b1gbaseball.com, said of the Spartans’ signature win. “Mississippi State provides Michigan State the chance to show their might as a program. A win against the Bulldogs, coupled with the win over the Beavers, is something media and those around the country take note in.”
Boss’ team enters the weekend Mississippi State tournament with a 4-2 record after taking two of three games at last weekend’s Pac-12/Big Ten Challenge in Surprise, Ariz. The Spartans received no votes in the three active polls this week.
“Winning a game or two against Mississippi State this weekend could be even bigger, since road wins are weighted more heavily than neutral site wins,” Fitt said. “And I expect the Bulldogs to recover from their rocky start and put together a fine season as well.”
It’s also imperative for MSU to build up its tournament portfolio now because the competition it faces later in the season mostly won’t be able to help increase the schedule strength or RPI rankings. Though the Big Ten’s strength has improved over the past few seasons, the bottom of the league and other northern out-of-conference opponents often drain much of the gains top teams make in the first few months of the season.
Indiana, which went to the College World Series last season and opened the year in the top 15 of most of the rankings, is off to a 2-5 start and has plummeted down or out of the polls. Nebraska and Ohio State also will join MSU in the chase of the defending Big Ten champion Hoosiers.
“The next couple of weekends are very important for Michigan State in the grand scheme of things,” said Kendall Rogers, the college managing editor for PerfectGame.org. “Though I was able to see Michigan State, Nebraska and Indiana last weekend and thought all three clearly were regional-quality clubs, the NCAA committee doesn’t often see things in the same lens as national pundits such as myself. …
“If State pitches at all, it will be in the NCAA postseason, in my opinion. With that said, State could make its case/resume very, very strong over the course of the next few weeks, going into Big Ten play.”