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Maryland baseball slid from No. 13 to unranked after 11 games, but the ‘Dirty Terps’ are battling back

Maryland has struggled to live up to preseason hype early, but Rob Vaughn and his crew are inching toward success.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

On March 14, Maryland baseball headed up to Newark, Delaware, to face the Delaware Blue Hens, a team that Maryland had already beat on Feb. 28, 8-3. The Terps struggled all game to pull away from Delaware, finding themselves in a three-run hole headed to the ninth. Then, late game heroics gave them the lead, and ultimately the win in extra innings. After the game head coach Rob Vaughn had a message for his team: “It’s time.”

Maryland has won seven of its last eight games, including its first sweep of the season against Maine. During its six-game winning streak, it scored an average of 13.6 runs per game. Despite recent success, the Terps stand at 11-8 and have severely under-performed preseason expectations with a lot of ground to make up.

The first three weeks were rough for Maryland. After taking two of three against South Florida to open the season, the Terps lost their home opener against West Virginia and two out of three to Ole Miss. Maryland dropped from No. 13 to No. 18, with some media outlets dropping them entirely out of the top 25.

In the season’s third week, Maryland beat Delaware with ease but struggled mightily in Minneapolis in the Cambria College Classic. Its offense stalled for the first time all season against No. 13 Ole Miss, its bullpen imploded against No. 4 Vanderbilt in the bottom of the ninth, and both units struggled against unranked Hawaii. After a winless weekend and another 1-3 week, Maryland fell to 4-7 and dropped out of the rankings all together.

The Terps seemed to be falling off a cliff, going from a potential back-to-back regional host to not even making the NCAA Tournament, based on media projections.

Maryland faced UMBC on March 7, immediately after losing its third straight game of the weekend against Hawaii. It battled with UMBC until the eighth inning, finally breaking things open to finish the Retrievers off. After the game, Vaughn was straightforward about what his message was to his team after a tough weekend.

“I needed to remind the guys just how good they are.”

Vaughn said that, before the game against UMBC, he showed the Terps a video compilation of the 122 home runs they crushed last season to remind them just how well they can hit.

Maryland’s offense has stayed potent

The Terps can definitely hit — and they can hit really well. Maryland has an OPS of .959 as a team, senior third baseman Nick Lorusso, fifth-year outfielder Matt Woods and sophomore center fielder Elijah Lambros have all been the standout players thus far.

Lorusso was good last year, but this year he’s been Maryland’s most consistent hitter. After a thrilling 5-4 win against Maine on March 11, Vaughn joked that he was very happy professional scouts “messed up” last year, allowing Lorusso to get another year with the Terps. Lorusso currently has eight home runs, 31 RBIs, and a 1.183 OPS, a testament to his great approach at the plate.

Woods — a transfer from Bryant, where he won last season’s NEC Player of the Year award — had a rough start to the season. After an injury and a suspension, he got his first hit as a Terp against Ole Miss in the Cambria College Classic. Since then, he’s gone nuclear; in his past five games, he has four home runs. He has a 1.115 OPS as a Terp and was recently moved to the cleanup spot in place of slumping sophomore designated hitter Ian Petrutz.

The most surprising of the bunch is Elijah Lambros, who was not great offensively last year at South Carolina with limited playing time.

“Looking back now from how much I’ve developed, I would say I was trash,” Lambros said of his freshman-year struggles.

This year, he’s been the perfect No. 9 hitter, with an on-base percentage of .446 and a 1.052 OPS. Lambros has also hit five homers — an impressive feat considering last year he didn’t hit any — something he credits to his offseason work with hitting coach Matt Swope. Lambros also has a unique position as a second leadoff hitter, getting on base at a high clip, which allows junior catcher Luke Shliger to drive him in.

Other players have performed as expected. Shliger and Matt Shaw have both hit relatively well, although Petrutz has cooled off lately after a blazing hot beginning of the season. All three players have over an OPS over .930, and Shaw has improved dramatically since a slump after his illness in the second week of the season kept him out of the West Virginia game.

As for the rest of the team, the offense is not as deep as last year; losing Bubba Alleyne, Troy Schreffler and Maxwell Costes was hard, if not impossible, for Maryland to instantly replace. Along with those losses, returners Bobby Zmarzlak and Kevin Keister have had some rough patches this year. Keister is slugging .369 on the year — a team low — and Zmarzlak currently has a .237 batting average and continues to strikeout around 20% of the time. Sophomore transfer first baseman Eddie Hacopian has also struggled, but all three players have shown flashes of the damage they can do at the plate.

Maryland’s offense broke out in key spots during its six-game winning streak. A sixth-inning rally against UMBC broke the Terps’ three-game losing streak. Against other America East opponents in Maine and Albany, Maryland put up 25 and 18 runs, respectively, in those Friday series openers.

Pitching struggles

In spite of its overall offensive success, Maryland’s pitching had been abysmal as of late and hasn’t gotten a break — even when facing weaker opponents like Albany or Delaware.

For junior right-hander Jason Savacool and senior righty Nick Dean, it has been a rare sight to see both of them perform at their best in the same series. They both have had excellent starts against good teams: Savacool had a no-walk masterclass against No. 13 Ole Miss and Nick Dean performed well against USF in his season debut.

After a bad debut against South Florida, Savacool has been the most consistent pitcher on the staff. Maryland’s ace has a 2.32 ERA in 31 innings pitched and is shaping up to be one of the best pitchers in the Big Ten.Savacool has been consistent against all levels of talent, dominating weaker teams and striking out nine batters and surrendering just one run against No. 13 Ole Miss on Feb. 24.

Dean, on the other hand, has really struggled lately; he has a 6.39 ERA through 25 innings of work. He has also had stretches of bad luck. Against Albany, the four-run inning that he gave up was in large part due to defensive mishaps.

When looking at more advanced metrics, Dean has not been as bad as his ERA would hint. His Skill Interactive Earned Run Average (SIERA) — a metric that accounts for quality of contact in starts — is 3.24, much lower than his current ERA. His expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP) is also much lower than his ERA. Dean sometimes struggles with his command, but has the stuff to strikeout batters; he is averaging almost 10 strikeouts per nine innings.

Freshman southpaw Kyle McCoy is finally being utilized in a Sunday role as well, getting the past two Sunday starts. Vaughn mentioned he wants to take the training wheels off for McCoy.

“Next weekend it’ll hopefully be warmer weather, so you can come up in that 85-90 [pitch] range somewhere in there ... that guy’s ready to go and he’s chomping at the bit to keep going,” Vaughn said.

McCoy had a masterful performance against Albany last Sunday, pitching five one-hit innings and only walking one batter. Vaughn has made it clear that McCoy is a key piece to the future of the program, but wanted to ease him in. McCoy has a 4.04 ERA on the year, and 60% of contact against him to this point has been on the ground. With the freshman jitters out of the way, McCoy will be a key piece in Maryland achieving its goals.

The rest of the pitching staff has been very hit or miss. Maryland has a team ERA of 5.37, much less than what is was before its series against Albany and Maine, where at its worst it was nearing seven.

Maryland has lost games this season due to subpar pitching, and run support is rarely a problem. The Terps put up eight runs against Ole Miss in game three of that weekend series, but they were astoundingly mercy-ruled due to their staff giving up two seven-run innings — an absolute disaster. Games against South Florida, West Virginia and Delaware have seen Maryland desperately putting together comeback attempts after falling into an early deficit.

Junior right-hander Nate Haberthier seems to have lost the Sunday starter job after struggling in his starts this year, including conceding a seven-run mashing to No. 13 Ole Miss in just two innings. But after his past appearance in relief, it seems he could be a perfect fit as a long relief pitcher.

Redshirt junior right-handed pitcher David Falco Jr. struggled early on but has shown himself to be a key late-inning reliever. Falco earned the save at Delaware in extra innings, and he’s only given up one run in his past seven innings in relief. Redshirt sophomore righty Nigel Belgrave has the lowest ERA on the team at 1.64, striking out almost 40% of batters faced. Fifth-year righty Kenny Lippman and junior lefty Tommy Kane — two transfers — have been inconsistent all season but currently both have an ERA over 5.00. Both pitchers have shown they have the tools but haven’t translated them as needed.

Junior lefty Logan Ott has a 4.24 ERA on the season and has either started or relieved most of this season’s midweek games. Vaughn recently said Delaware that his plan is to send out a relief pitcher to start in midweek games and let Ott pitch as much as possible to finish. This formula’s results have been so-so. Sophomore righty Ryan Van Buren and Lippman both had respective midweek appearances that either put the Terps in a hole or erased a comfortable deficit.

Van Buren, sophomore left-hander Andrew Johnson and freshman righty Eli Stowe have all not been sharp in their appearances, giving up a total of 13 earned runs and 14 walks in eight combined innings.

A look ahead at the upcoming schedule

Along with all of the problems with their pitching, the Terps will have to face a much tougher Big Ten than last year, which could jeopardize their hopes at making a run to Omaha.

Maryland’s most notable Big Ten threat is Iowa, which is now 15-3 and has a win over No. 1 LSU. Iowa is currently ranked No. 20 in Collegiate Baseball’s rankings and No. 23 by Baseball America, with D1Baseball relegating it to “receiving votes” after a series loss to Texas Tech a week ago. Maryland’s Big Ten schedule will open with a road series in Iowa City at the end of the month, including a nationally-televised game on Friday, March 31.

Nebraska looks like the team that was projected to win the Big Ten last year, with a big upset win over No. 4 Vanderbilt in the Cambria College Classic, something that Maryland was unable to match. The Huskers also rake; they currently have almost a team OPS of nearly 1.000 and three players with a wRC+ over 150 in 12 games. Nebraska went 0-3-1 in its opening weekend at San Diego, but it has since won 11 of its past 14 games.

Like Maryland, many Big Ten teams have been battle-tested before conference play, and most have exceeded expectations. Illinois took a road series at Southern Miss and has won or tied four straight series, standing at 9-7 overall. Ohio State has won eight of its last nine games, including wins over Oklahoma and Mississippi State. Indiana traveled to Auburn and Texas for a weekend series, taking one of three in each. Rutgers took one of three against No. 18 Campbell to start the season and has won eight straight games, including a sweep of 2022 regional host Georgia Southern.

In the most recent RPI data, Maryland has a lot of ground to make up to get to the top of the Big Ten again. Rutgers leads at No. 17, with Ohio State (No. 33), Iowa (No. 35), Illinois (No. 41) and Michigan State (No. 44) next in line. You have to scroll all the way down to No. 105 to see Maryland, which is also below Indiana (No. 64) and Michigan (No. 94). The Terps have not been credited with a single top-25 RPI win due to Ole Miss’s recent struggles.

These next two weeks for the Terps are massive in regard to their postseason hopes. They face red-hot UCF in their next series, which swept formerly-ranked Florida State in two games. Maryland then hops right into conference play with its toughest matchups on the road. It will face Iowa, Rutgers and Ohio State in its first three conference series, which will undoubtedly make or break the story of the 2023 Terps.