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15-6 Spartans start B10 play thinking championship

Michigan State started the week with the best hitting and pitching in the Big Ten after its first three-game sweep of archrival Michigan since 1955.

All that has them believing they can make a run at their first conference championship since 1979.

That third-year coach Jake Boss Jr. has instilled confidence is no small matter in a program that has had little enduring success.

Major-leaguers like Robin Roberts, Steve Garvey, Kirk Gibson and Mark Mulder have been Spartans, but they've had only nine winning seasons since 1990 and finished higher than fifth in the Big Ten just five times since 1988.

The 32-year championship drought has become a rallying cry, with players breaking huddles with the chant, "Big Ten champions."

"When we say it this year," senior first baseman Jeff Holm said, "guys actually mean it."

Last year, the Spartans won 20 of their first 25 games for their best start since 1971, and their 34-19 record tied for fifth-most wins in program history. But they didn't qualify for the six-team Big Ten tournament.

In 2009, Boss led MSU to a fifth-place finish and its first trip to the conference tournament since 2004. The Spartans went two games and out.

Michigan State is off to another fast start, taking a 15-6 record into this weekend's series at Iowa.

Senior center fielder Brandon Eckerle (.448), Holm (.427) and sophomore second baseman-right fielder Torsten Boss (.400) opened the week 1-2-3 on the Big Ten batting chart, and the Spartans led the league at .331. Torsten and the coach are not related.

Freshman David Garner (3-2, 2.00), senior Kurt Wunderlich (4-1, 2.33) and junior Tony Bucciferro (4-1, 2.75) are first, fourth and seventh in ERA, and the staff had a league-leading 2.78 ERA.

The pieces appear to be in place to end the drought.

"It's definitely been a while. Obviously I wasn't alive, and my dad was a kid back then," said second baseman Ryan Jones, the 2010 Big Ten freshman of the year. "We talk about it every single day. We're just looking to put up a banner. Hopefully it's going to be sometime during my tenure here."

The Spartans have been humbled at times. Clemson, a College World Series qualifier last year, beat the Spartans 8-0 on a four-hitter last month. Michigan State also lost two of three to Evansville and was beaten 3-1 on Wednesday by Central Michigan.

Last weekend's three-game sweep at Michigan — in freezing temperatures — was cause for celebration even though the Wolverines are struggling and the games don't count as conference wins. MSU and Michigan aren't in the Big Ten scheduling rotation this season.

"Sweeping a road series against your rival is something that hasn't happened in 56 years here. We're going to enjoy it," Boss said. "Yet it wasn't a conference series, and the bulk of our schedule is still in front of us."

Coach Boss, 40, took over after former coach David Grewe's team posted three straight losing seasons.

"It wasn't so much a culture of losing," Holm said, "but I did notice that a lot of older guys didn't care that much."

Boss saw potential. Hitting and pitching facilities were built before he arrived. Houston Astros owner and MSU graduate Drayton McLane put up $4 million to remake the Spartans' 2,500-seat ballpark, now called McLane Baseball Stadium at Kobs Field.

Boss had instant credibility. In 2008, he took Eastern Michigan to the NCAA regionals in his only year as head coach. He has coached in four other NCAA tournaments, first as an assistant at Eastern Michigan (2003) and three times as an assistant at Michigan (2005-07).

"It helps when you can say, 'I've been there and have seen what it takes,'" he said.

Short of winning the automatic bid that goes to the Big Ten tournament champion, Boss believes his team would have to win 40 games to get an NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 1979.

Boss already has shared with his players his vision for what that championship-clinching day will be like.

"We all know by heart how it goes," Holm said. "We're going to get that final out or score that final run, he's going to look up in the stands and see his wife and then join our dog pile. We'd be more than willing to put him on top."