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Maryland baseball: Terps take on Pitt in a series crucial to both teams

Maryland can take a huge step towards securing a post-season berth by taking the series from Pitt. But it won't be easy against a Panthers team that plays decidedly better at home.

Mike Shawaryn stands at 8 - 3 this season
Mike Shawaryn stands at 8 - 3 this season

The Terps travel to Pittsburgh this weekend in a series that has post-season implications for both teams. Maryland currently stands at 30 – 19 overall, 12 – 14 in the ACC with three games left. Pitt has a 22 – 24 overall record, 11 – 13 in the ACC with six games remaining. If Maryland takes the series then they’ll be virtually assured of making the ACC tournament. Given the Terps' RPI of 35, a series win would also probably lock up a spot in the NCAA Regionals. Since Pitt plays Notre Dame next week, a series win would most likely get the Panthers into the ACCT. 

Update: Here are the projected starting pitchers

Game One: RHP Rhys Aldenhoven (2-2, 3.71) vs. Jake Stinnett (5-6, 2.63)
Game Two: RHP Joe Harvey (2-1, 2.21) vs. Mike Shawaryn (3.12)
Game Three: RHP Matt Wotherspoon (5-5, 4.93) vs. Jake Drossner (4-1, 2.42) 

Pitt and Maryland are heading in different directions

This is the last year of ACC play for the Terrapins. Next year they’ll move to the B1G, which doesn’t have the level of quality baseball that is seen in the ACC. Meanwhile Pitt played very competitively in the Big East before coming into the ACC this year. As a result of facing stiffer competition, Pitt’s gaudy statistics from 2013 have not been replicated in 2014. Yet Pitt has acquitted itself relatively well in its first season of ACC baseball. While I haven’t seen their name mentioned in NCAA post-season projections, they can be a dangerous team at home. Maryland is riding a five-game win streak in which their pitchers have posted a 1.20 ERA. Things seem to be breaking in Maryland's favor, and not a moment too soon.

Pitt by the numbers

As a team Pitt is hitting .241, last in the ACC. All of their leading hitters in 2013 have seen their batting average drop, some by 50 or 60 points. One of the questions I asked Dan from Cardiac Hill (see below) was whether or not the change in conferences was responsible. Last year Pitt’s SOS was 202, while this season it’s 85. In any event Pitt does not have a hitter batting above .300. What Pitt lacks in average they somewhat make up for in terms of power: they’ve hit 17 home runs and 9 triples. Players to take note of include Casey Roche, Stephen Vranka, and Boo Vazquez.

Pitt’s pitching has been mediocre. They did lose a major arm from last year, Ethan Mildren, but many of Pitts’ hurlers have seen their ERA go up. One big exception is RHP Joseph Harvey. Last year he sported a 3.27 ERA as a reliever. This season he’s been a weekend starter with a 2.21 ERA. Pitt's other weekend starters, Rhys Aldenhoven and Matt Wotherspoon, have seen their ERA go up by close to a run per game. Accordingly, Pitt has the ACC’s highest opponent’s batting average. Pitt is almost exclusively stocked with right handers.

Pitt has stolen only 42 bases, about half what Maryland has accomplished. Further, Pitt ranks dead last in the ACC in fielding percentage, and it’s not even close. On paper Maryland looks like the far superior team. But I’m quite worried. The reason is …

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

In ACC play, Pitt seems to have a split personality, depending on whether they’re on the road or at home. Their ACC record at home is 9 – 3 including sweeps of Duke and Georgia Tech. On the road Pitt is 2 – 10 against the ACC. While Maryland has had problems on the road it’s not as pronounced as it is for Pitt.

Swapping questions with Cardiac Hill

I swapped questions with Dan Sostek of Cardiac Hill, SB Nation’s Pitt site. My questions and his answers are shown below. Dan’s questions and my responses can be found  here.

1. How much of the decline in hitting from last year has been due to Pitt moving from the Big East to the much tougher ACC?

I would say a fair amount has to do with the transition. The lineup is essentially the same, with the only big loss being catcher Elvin Soto, who was drafted by the Diamondbacks. Players like Steve Shelinsky, who hit .311 and led the Big East with 12 home runs in 2013, have had tough seasons, as he is currently hitting .239 with just three home runs. Pitt also has been completely stymied by great pitching on occasions, most notably against University of Virginia, when sophomore lefty Nathan Kirby threw a complete game, 18 strikeout no-hitter. It was a large jump in competition, and it's really been apparent at times.

2. In ACC play Pitt seems to play great at home and not so great on the road. Why do you think that is so?

I'd say the biggest reason for Pitt's success at home is due to its playing field. The Panthers play at Charles L. Cost Field, part of a big sports complex where the softball and soccer teams also play. The field is almost entirely turf, including the basepaths; the only dirt on the field is on the pitcher's mound. This leads to weird hops, adjustments required for running, and just a different level of comfort for opposing teams. Grounders tend to bounce very high off the turf, and Pitt has much more experience dealing with that than their opponents, which is why the Panthers over the years have been able to secure home sweeps against ranked teams like Notre Dame last year or Georgia Tech this year.

3. Boo Vazquez is getting some MLB draft hype, possibly on the basis of his 2013 numbers.  But it looks like Stephen Vranka and Casey Roche are having solid years. Which one of these hitters is the most dangerous and why?

Well, Boo Vazquez is definitely the most prototypical MLB draft prospect on the team; he's big, strong, and has a great swing. But the most productive player on the team over the years has definitely been Casey Roche. It was Roche, not Vazquez, who was actually a preseason All-American, and he, like many others on the team, has had a bit of a down year, at least for his standards. Last year Roche hit .339 with nine homers and led the Big East with 65 RBI (he also pitches, too, and has started a couple games on the hill for Pitt this year). Roche isn't as much of a prospect, though; he doesn't have the build or look of Vazquez that MLB scouts love. As for Vranka, he is just a really solid leadoff hitter; he hasn't been getting many looks from scouts, but has been productive getting on base and fielding over his years at Pitt.

Which Pitt team will show up? Is Maryland's recent winning streak a sign that all the pieces are coming together? We'll know the answers to these questions late Sunday afternoon. And we'll also know Maryland's post-season chances.