Seniors leading Michigan State to top
Spartans looking for their first Big Ten title since 1979
There is really no substitute for strong leadership, and Michigan State is lucky enough to have two senior captains that are practically irreplaceable this season.
Senior first baseman Jeff Holm and senior centerfielder Brandon Eckerle are leaving a lasting impression on Spartan baseball. Holm is in contention to be the Big Ten Conference’s triple crown winner as he currently leads the league with a .387 batting average, nine home runs and 49 RBIs. On Monday, he was named Louisville Slugger National Player of the Week after batting .538 with nine RBIs in a sweep of Purdue.
“Jeff is a fierce competitor … he’s an extremely athletic guy, who ability-wise has got an awful lot of it,” Michigan State head coach Jake Boss said. “He has played really well for us. He’s a good leader. He plays hard all the time. He practices hard. He’s one of those guys is not only going to make himself better, but everyone else around him.”
Eckerle is the epitome of a student-athlete, boasting a 3.98 grade-point average in the classroom, while being just four short of MSU’s all-time hits record. Most recently, he was chosen as the Michigan Male College Athlete of the Year, and is a Lowes Senior CLASS Award finalist. He ranks second on the squad with a .381 batting average and leads the league with 77 hits.
“He’s a quieter kid, more of a leader by example, but plays harder and practices harder than anyone else we have,” Boss said. “He works harder in the classroom than anyone else. He’s off the charts community-service wise. He’s really the All-American kid – he does it all. He’s an outstanding kid.
“These guys are two of our best. Certainly if those two guys aren’t in the lineup, we’re nowhere near having the amount of success that we’ve had.”
But more than any individual accomplishments or accolades, Holm and Eckerle would like to help the Spartans win their first Big Ten title since 1979. MSU currently sits in first place in the league standings with six conference contests remaining, leading Minnesota by two games. The Spartans have won only three Big Ten titles since they started competing in the league in 1951.
MSU is not only vying for a regular-season championship, but the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which the program has never won. The Spartans have competed in the tournament just eight times since its creation in 1980, and only once in the last six years, when Boss led the squad to qualifying in the first year at the helm of the program in 2009.
“Since my freshman year, this program has come a long way,” Eckerle said. “The new coaching staff is a big part of the turnaround. Their first season we took a big step in the right direction just by making the Big Ten Tournament, which was something that hadn’t happened in a long time.”
MSU kept its momentum going at the beginning of last season, starting the year with a 22-5 record, but then going 12-14 to finish the season. With an 11-13 Big Ten record, the Spartans tied for seventh place, and did not make the league tournament.
“We’ve had some success each of the last two years, but like any other team have had some adversity,” Boss said. “Last year didn’t end like we hoped, not making the conference tournament on the last day of the regular season. I think that refocused our guys and showed them there is still a ways to go, and I think they’ve brought that attitude and a good work ethic from day one in September, and we’re starting to see some of the fruits of that labor.”
“Last year, we had a ton of talent and a bunch of wins, and we thought we were going to do it,” Holm said. “I guess maybe we took it for granted, but this year we’re focused on finishing every game and getting quality wins when we can.”
This season, the Spartans are concentrating on finishing the job. They have swept their last two Big Ten opponents, and won seven of their last nine contests entering a three-game series at Indiana beginning May 13.
“I think we learned from last year,” Eckerle said. “We reminded ourselves this year when we got off to a good start that there was a lot of baseball left to play and we didn’t want a repeat of happened last year.”
Eckerle is impressed by the resiliency of this year’s squad, and how much the bullpen has improved. The Spartans are 27-1 when leading after seven innings.
“In the past, if we got down in the first couple innings, the team just kind of lost its fight,” Eckerle said. “This team doesn’t give up, which is something we didn’t really have this year. The bullpen is also doing a great job in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings … sealing those victories.”
“We’re continuing to grow as a ball club, but realize we’re not there yet and work every day trying to get better,” Boss said.
Michigan State enters the weekend with a 31-15 overall record, and 13-5 mark in Big Ten action. The Spartans lead the Big Ten and rank seventh in the nation with a .320 team batting average.