The Terps cruised through the season's opening games last weekend in Myrtle Beach, S.C. This past weekend in Mobile, Ala., the opposition was a notch higher. All three of the Terps' opponents have serious NCAA tournament aspirations. Therefore, these games would be a useful early season barometer of how good the 2015 Terps really are. The result: two out of three and a hair's width away from sweeping.
Quick game recaps
In Game 1 on Friday, Maryland made swift work of host team South Alabama. Scoring four times in the top of the first was more than enough for the Terps as Mike Shawaryn turned in another stellar performance. The sophomore right-hander allowed just three hits and no runs in seven efficient innings. Through two starts, Shawaryn has yielded only six hits in 12 innings, for an opposing batting average of .140.
UCF (Central Florida, but they insist on being called UCF; whatever) is a legitimate top 20 team that ran up a five-run lead on the Terps Saturday. Rather than fold tent, Maryland managed a furious comeback with two runs apiece in the eighth and ninth innings. Ultimately the inability to get a bases loaded two-out hit on three occasions came back to haunt the Terps. When I asked head coach John Szefc how the team reacted to its first loss of the season he remarked, "Obviously, no one's happy about it. But we left 12 guys on base so we really didn't deserve it."
Game 3 on Sunday pitted the Terps against No. 34 Arkansas. Once again, Maryland found themselves in a five-run hole, but this time the Terps mounted a stunning comeback that broke open the game in their favor. Certainly, the Terps received some help from Arkansas in the nine-run sixth inning, as the Razorbacks committed four errors. However, the Terps strung together a number of hits that left the rowdy Razorback fans silent. Szefc said, "Our guys worked hard to come from behind. That's something we take a lot of pride in. Coming out of here 2-1, I don't feel too bad about that."
Freshman making an impact
A major factor in Maryland's fast start to the 2015 season is the contribution from a talented freshman class. Shortstop Kevin Smith and first baseman/DH Andrew Bechtold have been starters since game one and have turned in admirable performances. The two newcomers waged a fierce competition in the fall for the shortstop position. Rather than give a starting position to just one of them, Szefc found a way to get both into the line-up. I asked Szefc if he was surprised at how well Smith and Bechtold were playing. "Not really. We knew they both were pretty good. You need some young guys to step in and do it. We just had to figure a way to get both of them in." Szefc also pointed out that talented freshmen Justin Morris and Jamal Wade deserve playing time; it is just a matter of trying to fit everyone in with a limited number of available slots. That's a nice problem to have.
No sophomore slump
Shawaryn and Brandon Lowe each had freshman All-American seasons in 2014. So far, there's been no evidence of a sophomore slump for either player, nor for fellow sophomore Nick Cieri. Lowe has an OPS of 1.133 and Cieri has had four multiple hit games. With Lowe getting on base at such a high frequency, it was incumbent upon junior LaMonte Wade to have productive at bats. Wade has responded, leading the team in batting average (.478) and RBIs (9).
Terps' success is not an error
The most impressive aspect of the Terps' play has been their defense. Through six games, Maryland has not committed an error: most major league teams cannot accomplish that. Compare that with the collective 16 errors made by the Terps' opponents over the first six games, and Maryland's early season success is not surprising. Maryland has also made a number of web gems plays that do not show up in the box score.
The season is barely 10 percent complete, and the Terps have yet to face their Big Ten opponents. Thus, any projections now would be premature. Nevertheless, at this point the Terps have met the high expectations placed on them by the national press. In fact, polls released this Monday have the Terps inching upwards. The Collegiate Baseball Newspaper has the Terps finally cracking the top 20 (I'm waiting for the Coaches/USA Today poll to be released). D1 baseball, which has consistently been bullish on the Terps this season, has Maryland at No. 12. So far, so very good.