EAST LANSING - Following its 27-game non-conference slate, there’s a different feeling around the Michigan State softball program heading into the Big Ten season compared from a year ago.
Junior second baseman Jacquie Reiser, who hit her first career home run in a 12-0 rout of Alabama A&M last weekend, said the team learned they can play with any team in the non-conference schedule.
“We can compete,” she said. “We beat the No. 25 ranked team. If we just keep having those days where we keep putting the ball in play, hitting it hard, then we’re going to be really successful.”
The Spartans (15-12) improved upon last year’s non-conference schedule in which they were 8-18, averaging 2.7 runs per contest. This year, the Spartans are averaging 4.7 runs per game, which has improved their record by 6.5 games.
Michigan State’s improved success on offense has been from doing the little things. The Spartans rank in the top half of the Big Ten three major categories: first in sacrifice bunts, second in sacrifice flies and fifth in stolen bases.
Unsurprisingly, Reiser stressed attacking every pitch is part of the success the Spartans have seen so far on offense this season.
“Staying on time, and being selective with our pitches too,” Reiser said. “Not swinging for something that you would normally not hit out and just taking it. So we’re getting on base, too, and that’s really important.”
Coach Jacquie Joseph is teaching Michigan State to play “team offense” as there are lots of ways to create offense in softball.
“It’s not so much ‘Did you get an actual hit?’ but ‘Did you create offense?’” Joseph said. “There are little things you can do that help to create offense: going deep in a count, drawing a walk, moving a runner, sac fly, those are all things you can do to add value to the offense.”
Because of this, new assistant coach J.T. Gasso said consistency is one of the biggest areas of concerns for the Spartans as they move forward with their season.
“I think what every team wants is consistency,” Gasso said. “We have the ability and competitiveness to compete, so it’s just being able to execute it.”
Joseph said it took all of the non-conference to find a solidified lineup due to the lack of consistency.
“We didn’t have the same lineup because nobody was being consistent,” she said. “I think we’re in pretty good shape. I think we’ve got some kids still on the bench that have underachieved and can make their way into the lineup, but I think right now we’re pretty much set on defense anyway.”
Starting pitching is another big improvement for the Spartans, Michigan State ranks in the top five in the Big Ten in several pitching categories, including fourth in strikeouts, fifth in team ERA at 3.43 and second in saves.
“I’ve been pleased with the fact that we’ve been tough in one-run games, we’re 5-4 in those one-run games,” Joseph said “I’ve been impressed with (Kristina Zalewski’s) progress from last year to this year.”
Three major categories Joseph is looking for improvement for the Big Ten season includes fielding percentage, earned run average and batting average.
“We’ve got to keep an ERA under 3.00,” Joseph said. “We’ve got to field better than we’re fielding getting closer to .965, and I think we’ve got to hit closer to .285 and we’re at .262.”
Lowering the ERA below 3.00 would be a big boost for Michigan State. The Spartans are 14-2 when scoring three runs or more, but only 1-10 when scoring two or fewer.
But that also comes down to consistency. Joseph said the difference between third and tenth place in the Big Ten is extremely small.
“We’re very close,” Joseph said. “We’re talking about .1 or .2 off of I think things that can be the difference between third place and tenth place. It’s not a lot.”
Other areas of improvement Joseph is looking for is doing better with the leadoff batter and on defense.
“We’ve got to do better with the leadoff batter, we’ve got to do better with two outs,” Joseph said. “Not doing that great with leadoff batter. A lot of times that leadoff batter ends up scoring.
“So we get a little better there, just a couple more hits a game, couple more runs a game, it’s not a lot. We’re right there.”
Michigan State heads to Nebraska (12-12) this weekend for a three-game series in its Big Ten conference opener. They fell in the first two games of the series and are looking for their first win in the series, as they are 0-7 against the Huskers. The rubber match is tomorrow at 1pm.
Michigan State will return from Nebraska and prepare for their home opener against Detroit on March 24.