The University of Maryland hasn’t reached the NCAA postseason in 42 years. It might take two years or much longer to accomplish that goal, but second-year coach John Szefc is confident, and the Terrapins feel like they have a chance to make a statement this spring.
Maryland, which entered the season as a team to watch in our preseason field of 64 for the NCAA postseason, has begun the year on a high note despite some significant personnel losses. The Terps are 8-2 overall and have a chance to put their name on the national map this weekend in a road series against No. 2 Florida State.
“The big thing for us right now, despite a good start, it just being a bit more consistent offensively. Our offense is definitely catching up to everything else,” Szefc said. “With the people we’re going to play the next four weekends, you get measured by how you do against those teams, and against other teams in this conference.
“We’re going to see just how good we are pretty soon,” he added.
As good as life looks for the Terrapins right now, they’ve had to overcome some major personnel changes to get where they are today. For instance, the Terps lost a pair of weekend starters — good ones — from last year’s team, including Jimmy Reed, and just before the season, the Terps announced that Brady Kirkpatrick, who made 13 appearances and 11 starts last year, likely would miss the rest of the spring because of injury.
That’s only part of the attrition. Maryland’s best prospect on last year’s team was third baseman KJ Hockaday. However, Hockaday transferred to Tennessee Wesleyan during the offseason, with Greg Olenski, who finished last season with a batting average in the .250s, also parting ways with the program.
The road hasn’t been easy for Szefc and his coaching staff, but the rise of the pitching staff is a big reason why the Terrapins have made a sizable jump. Maryland finished the 2013 campaign with a 3.83 ERA, and though the season is still young, this year’s club has a 2.76 ERA.
“We’ve pitched very well. Jim Belanger has done a terrific job of developing some of our guys,” Szefc said. “We had some really young guys throw for us last year, a few of them had some issues throwing strikes. But Belanger has done a really nice job with them.”
Anthony Papio is having a very solid start to the season offensively. (Maryland photo)
The Terps’ biggest improvements on the mound have been way of senior right-handed pitcher Jake Stinnett and talented freshman righty Mike Shawaryn. Stinnett is only in his second season as a full-time starting pitcher, but has made some strides creating some buzz in the scouting community. Stinnett was up to 94 against Florida, and Szefc added he can touch 95, too. Stinnett is doing a good job of commanding the strike zone with his fastball, and his slider has become a true swing and miss offering. Meanwhile, the Terps were a little lucky to get Shawaryn on campus. The 32nd-round pick to the Kansas City Royals could’ve gone much higher in last summer’s Major League Baseball draft, but he decided to attend college.
Stinnett has a 1.23 ERA in 22 innings, while Shawaryn is the big riser with an 0.54 ERA in 16 2/3 innings, along with 13 strikeouts and three walks. The talented righty sits 88-92 with his fastball and has done a good job of developing his changeup over the past couple months.
“The thing about Stinnett is he’s just going out there and throwing a ton of strikes. His slider has become a really nice pitch to watch,” he said. “As for Mike, the big thing that stands out to me is his maturity. He came from a program where expectations are through the roof, but he’s been stable and a sure hand out there.”
Though Stinnett and young Shawaryn lead the pitching staff, the Terps have gotten plenty of good innings from other pitchers. Senior left-handed pitcher Ben Brewster has a 3.60 ERA in four appearances and is a rising arm with a fastball 90-92 from a funky motion, along with good command. Meanwhile, Alex Robinson has transformed from a starting pitcher to reliever, and is having success in that role with an unblemished ERA in four appearances, while Brandon Casas (2.25) also is earning rave reviews from the coaching staff.
With the pitching staff on track entering this weekend’s series at FSU, one of the big keys for this coaching staff is finding ways to score runs against the Seminoles’ elite pitching staff. The Terrapins are hitting .266 as a club, with good prospect and outfielder Charlie White hitting just .216 with seven RBIs. The Terps also have high hopes for first baseman LaMonte Wade, who, too, is talented but only hitting .256 with two RBIs.
“White is trying to get it going right now. He’s a little different this year. He’s got a bulls-eye on his back, and that’s something he’s going to have to get used to,” he said. “When he gets on base, he’s a marked man right now. I think with guys like he and LaMonte, they’ve been just OK so far. But we’ll be just fine.”
Maryland’s offense is led by outfielder Anthony Papio, who’s making a sizable jump this spring. Papio finished last season with a .245 batting average, but he’s hitting a markedly better .429 with a double, a home run and five RBIs. Second baseman Brandon Lowe (.333) and Blake Schmit (.314) are additional players to watch.
The Terrapins have started the 2014 season with a team many believe has a legitimate chance to snap the program’s NCAA postseason hiatus. This weekend’s series won’t determine Maryland’s fate, but it sure could be a enormous step in the right direction.
The John Szefc plan appears to be working sooner than expected.
SERIES SHOWCASE: OHIO STATE ON A MISSION
It’s hard for head coach Greg Beals and his Ohio State players to think much about Oregon and last season together.
When the Buckeyes take the field in Eugene, Ore., this weekend, they’ll be reminded, but motivated by one of the bad memories from last season. It was late in the season, the Buckeyes were coming off a midweek split against Georgia Tech, and they had momentum and a 33-15 overall record.
Trace Dempsey and the Ohio State pitching staff have surprised thus far. (Ohio State photo)
In other words, if the Buckeyes win the Oregon series, or at least win one and take care of business the rest of the way, there’s a very good chance they’re in the NCAA postseason. Instead, what began as a nightmare and an 0-3 record against the Ducks ended in absolute disaster, as the Buckeyes lost eight of their last 10 games to finish the season with a 35-23 overall record.
Most importantly, the tailspin that followed last year’s Oregon series loss cost OSU a chance at the NCAA postseason. Beals doesn’t want to call it revenge against the Ducks, but he at least senses something from his players heading into the series this weekend.
“I get the sense from our players [there’s something to prove]. They know how close we were last year to being an NCAA tournament and beating these guys. They know we’re right there in the mix and are looking at this weekend as an opportunity.
“We’re off to a pretty good start this season,” he continued. “But this series will give us a pretty good idea of where we stand right now.”
Ohio State remains a work in progress, but as with many Big Ten clubs so far this year, the prognosis looks good despite some significant departures. The Buckeyes lost a pair of starting pitchers in Brian King and Jaron Long, along with key reliever Brett McKinney from last year’s club. However, this year’s pitching staff has far exceeded expectations thus far with a 2.81 earned-run average.
Junior right-handed pitcher Trace Dempsey, one of the nation’s elite relievers, is off to another good start despite an ERA over four because of one bad outing, while the starting rotation clearly has been the biggest surprise in Beals’ eyes.
“We’ve got some younger guys really getting it done out there right now. We’ve got some guys who had to speed up the learning curve a bit and we’ve had to rely on those guys pretty quickly,” Beals said. “We also have a senior like Greg Greve, who kind of got pushed back to the bullpen last year, stepping up so far this season.”
The veteran Greve has been joined in the weekend rotation by junior left-hander Robert Riga and freshman lefty Zach Farmer. Greve, a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder, has commanded the fastball through three starts, having the ability to move the ball on both sides of the plate. His secondary stuff could use some work, but remains effective with a fastball into the 90s and good command. Meanwhile, Riga had a 2.14 ERA in 29 appearances last season, and is making quite the impression as a starter this spring with a 3.86 ERA in 16 1/3 innings, along with eight strikeouts. Riga has good movement on his fastball with some good armside run, while his also commands his curveball and changeup.
Farmer just might be the most intriguing arm of all. Seldom does a freshman take a lead role in a weekend rotation for a good club, but the lefty just might do that before the season closes. Farmer, ranked No. 152 nationally out of high school with a fastball in the low-90s, is tough to hit with his fastball on a downhill plane, while he has a 3.77 ERA in 14 1/3 innings, along with five strikeouts.
“You know, Farmer is still probably walking a few more guys than we’d like, but remains tough to hit,” he said. “Then there’s Dempsey. It was probably good that he had one bad outing for us, because it gave us an opportunity to take a step back and make sure his mechanics and arm slot in order.”
The Buckeyes have other quality arms at their disposal, too, but the breakthrough player from the fall, sophomore right-handed pitcher Jake Post, has more than exceed expectations thus far. Post has appeared in three games, started one and has an 0.84 ERA in 10 2/3 innings, along with 11 strikeouts and four walks.
As Ohio State looks forward to this weekend and the rest of the season, what needs to improve is clear. The pitching staff has pleased Beals and his staff, and for now, that area can be checked off. But the offense might be a different story with a .254 batting average, though, the Buckeyes feel like their approaches have been just fine.
Conventional wisdom suggests guys like Jacob Bosiokovic (.222) and Josh Dezse (.176) eventually will return to their normal ways, while freshman outfielder Ronnie Dawson, who’s hitting .382, is one of few offensive bright spots.
Ohio State is far from a finished product at this point, but it hits the road with something to prove. And of course, a lot of surprising pitching.
FOLLOW THE UNBEATENS
Even though the college baseball is still young, there are very few unblemished teams still on the board. Of the clubs that have played more than a few games thus far:
* Tennessee (12-0): The Volunteers have taken a big step forward early this season with youngsters such as Nick Senzel and right-handed pitcher Kyle Serrano stepping up. Now, the Vols hit the road for the first time this season with a road trip To Arizona State.
* South Carolina (12-0): Barring some huge surprise, the Gamecocks likely will enter Southeastern Conference play next weekend with a 16-0 overall record. The South Carolina pitching staff has been excellent, with talented sophomore right-handed pitcher Joel Seddon stepping up in the closer role. Offensively, ultra-athletic Tanner English is coming off a productive series against Clemson. South Carolina gets Brown at home this weekend — a team playing its first game of the season.
Teams: UCLA, USC, Houston, Pepperdine
The Dodgertown Classic is always an intriguing tournament to watch, but it has a little extra punch this year with four teams that seem to be making strides … UCLA still has some work to do from an offensive standpoint with just a .238 batting average. However, right-handed pitchers James Kaprielian (0.90 ERA) and Cody Poteet (2.81) are red-hot following terrific performances at last week’s Irish Classic in Cary, N.C. … USC is off to a nice start offensively this season with Jake Hernandez (.486), Jeremy Martinez (.326) and Kevin Swick (.396) leading the way, while on the mound, lefty specialist Sean Adler has been terrific with a 0.96 ERA in 9 1/3 innings and six appearances … Pepperdine has quietly gotten off to a nice start, and this offense has some serious potential with young catcher Aaron Barnett (.426) leading the way. Meanwhile, senior right-handed pitcher Corey Miller has met expectations with an 0.35 ERA in 25 2/3 innings, while two-way player Aaron Brown enters the weekend with a 4.12 ERA on the mound, along with a .354 batting average … The final game of this tournament between USC and UCLA will take place at Dodger Stadium.
CAL BASEBALL CLASSIC
Teams: California, Tulane, San Francisco, Arkansas
The Golden Bears were one of my picks to click before the season, and it looks like coach Dave Esquer’s club is ready to make a run at the NCAA postseason. Cal freshman starting pitcher Daulton Jefferies has been terrific in three starts, tallying a 1.08 ERA in 16 2/3 innings, along with 13 strikeouts and five walks while veteran Kyle Porter (1.35) and Ryan Mason (1.12) also have been fantastic … Tulane has taken a small step back in the last week, but coach Rick Jones still has a club that I think has a chance to do something special this season. Finally healthy, hard-throwing Randy LeBlanc is having a nice season thus far, tallying a 2.00 ERA in 18 innings, while at the plate, Richard Carthon (.385) and Andrew Garner (.371) are intriguing bats to watch this weekend … San Francisco entered the season as a possible postseason type of club, and that still stands despite just a 5-6 overall record at this point, thanks in part to playing an incredibly difficult schedule. As expected, elite prospect and outfielder Bradley Zimmer is having an impressive season, hitting .420 with two homers and 11 RBIs, while another seasoned hitter, Derek Atkinson, is hitting .380 with nine RBIs. The big key for the Dons this weekend is improving starting pitching with even Abe Bobb having a 4.95 ERA … Arkansas suffered a very surprising home series loss to South Alabama last weekend, and hopes to return to normal this weekend. The Razorbacks have gotten hot starts from talented Joe Serrano (.389) and Brian Anderson (.371) at the plate, while Jalen Beeks (0.51) and Chris Oliver (1.12) have been solid in the starting rotation, especially Beeks, who has struck out 17 and walked six.
GEORGIA BULLDOG INVITATIONAL
Teams: Georgia, North Florida, Buffalo, Western Carolina
Georgia has begun to play a better brand of baseball in the past week, and has a rising prospect outfielder to watch in Hunter Cole, who leads the team with a .367 batting average, a home run and eight RBIs, while on the mound, Patrick Boling has a 2.63 ERA in 13 2/3 innings. Though he has been relegated to only starting in the midweek, hard-throwing freshman righty Robert Tyler could soon find himself gobbling up more weekend innings … Western Carolina is 8-2 and has several marquee victories already this season. WCU has an excellent staff ace in right-handed pitcher Jeremy Null, who has a 0.41 ERA in 22 innings, along with 25 strikeouts and four walks, while this is a potent offensive club with a .314 batting average, with Adam Martin (.395) and Bradley Strong (.375) leading the way. WCU has a team on-base percentage of .419 … It was a little surprising to see North Florida struggle so much offensively against North Carolina last weekend. But Drew Weeks (.500/1/6) and Donnie Dewees (.310/1/8) hope to have productive weekends. The big key for UNF, too, is getting quality starts, with ace David Trexler carrying a 4.02 ERA in 15 2/3 innings … Buffalo is off to a 6-1 start, with only a narrow triumph over VMI serving as a quality victory. But don’t sleep on these guys, as Tyler Mautner is off to a terrific start offensively with a .476 batting average, a home run and six RBIs. Meanwhile, Anthony Magovney (1.26), Mike Burke (1.29) and Mike McGee (2.45) have had a pair of quality starts.
HI CORBETT CLASSIC
Teams: Arizona, UC Santa Barbara, Mississippi State
Arizona has been a battered club in more ways than one in the past week. In addition to the news that talented right-handed pitcher Mathew Troupe was out for the season because of an arm injury and Tommy John surgery, the Wildcats were swept at home by Seton Hall. With that said, the Wildcats expect a strong start from righty James Farris, who has a 2.08 ERA in 26 innings, along with 24 strikeouts and two walks, while at the plate, Scott Kingery (.426), Zach Gibbons (.420) and Cody Ramer (.388) all expect to have productive weekends … UC Santa Barbara didn’t have a chance to make a statement opening weekend as its series against N.C. State was washed out, but that chance arrives this weekend against the defending national runner-up and ‘Zona. UCSB veteran Joey Epperson is off to a terrific start with a .500 average, two homers and eight RBIs, while two-way player Robby Nesovic is hitting .400 with three RBIs. On the mound, sophomore left-handed pitcher Justin Jacome has been terrific through two starts, tallying a 1.38 ERA in 13 innings, along with 11 strikeouts and just three walks … Mississippi State would like to find a way to get talented right-handed pitcher Brandon Woodruff back on track this weekend in Arizona. Woodruff hasn’t been sharp this season and has a 5.00 ERA in nine innings, while freshman Dakota Hudson (1.42) and Trevor Fitts (1.96) have been terrific. The Bulldogs, of course, have one of the elite bullpen duos in college baseball with Ross Mitchell (1.27) and Jonathan Holder (3.60) leading the way.