At 2:07 a.m. this past Sunday, No. 2-seed Maryland baseball lost its first game of the Winston-Salem regional to No. 1 overall seed Wake Forest in a 21-6 blowout. The Terps had a less-than-12-hour turnaround time before facing off against the No. 4-seed George Mason Patriots in an elimination game.
In heartbreaking fashion, the Terps lost to the Patriots on a walk-off sacrifice fly, quickly ending Maryland’s season.
Coming off a Big Ten Tournament title, Maryland was in a prime position to make a run in past the regional round for the first time since 2015.
Its top three hitters — junior catcher Luke Shliger, junior shortstop Matt Shaw and senior third baseman Nick Lorusso — comprised one of the best trios in college baseball. As a whole, the team’s offense was the second-best in the tournament in OPS and first in home runs.
Unfortunately for the Terps, they drew the Winston-Salem Regional, led by a buzzsaw in Wake Forest. They were the third Maryland team this year to face the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament; The men’s basketball team drew Alabama in a second-round matchup and the women’s basketball team drew South Carolina in the Elite 8.
To make a bad situation worse, freshman left-handed pitcher Kyle McCoy was ruled out due to injury, which left the Terps with only two reliable starting pitchers.
The Terps took the opening game of the regional against No. 3-seed Northeastern, 7-2. They getting revenge on the Huskies from a midweek matchup in College Park earlier in the season. Leading the charge for the Terps was junior right-handed pitcher Jason Savacool, who only allowed two earned runs and struck out seven.
With only one starter left, the Terps turned to senior right-hander Nick Dean to match up with Wake Forest’s Rhett Lowder, who came into the contest with a nation-leading 1.69 ERA on the year.
Things fell apart early for Maryland. Its offense couldn’t touch Wake Forest’s ace and its pitching fell apart, allowing 21 runs, 15 hits and a whopping 20 free passes in a 21-6 loss.
With the short turnaround, the Terps faced George Mason, which pulled off an upset win over Northeastern the day prior. The Patriots jumped out to an early 3-0 lead, but the Terps offense finally woke up, launching two bombs and jumping out to an 8-3 lead in the fourth.
But again Maryland’s pitching let it down, as it surrendered seven runs in the fourth. After tying it up late, the Terps' season came to an end after a walk-off sacrifice fly that sent the Patriots into a celebratory frenzy.
The problem for the Terps was two-fold — their draw in the tournament was rough, and their lack of effective pitching caught up with them.
Wake Forest has been playing baseball on a level practically unmatched by any other team this year, and showed it in their dismantling of the Terps and their two blowouts of George Mason. Against the Patriots the first time around, Wake Forest sent out Seth Keener, who struck out 13 batters. Lowder then shut down the Terps, allowing only three runs. And to wrap things up, Josh Hartle and Sean Sullivan combined for 16 strikeouts and one run allowed in 7 2⁄3 innings to clinch a spot in a super regional.
“You look at Wake’s pitching staff, they got a lot of elite arms,” Maryland head coach Rob Vaughn said. “They’re good, man. They’ve got a lot of depth on the mound.”
Wake Forest also outscored opponents 48-7 in three games, a testament to its excellent offense.
“It’s a strain to get through that lineup,” Vaughn said. “I don’t think there’s a place that you can breathe, and that’s why they’ve won 49 games and are the best team in the country.”
Wake Forest handled business in its regional, while many of the other hosts had to hold their breath. Two regional hosts were bounced on day two, with another three bounced on day three. Some other hosts were able to go undefeated in their regional, but none were as dominant as Wake Forest.
The bottom line is this: while Maryland would’ve theoretically needed to face the Demon Deacons eventually — and has no excuse for losing to a George Mason team that has an RPI over 150 — its draw in the NCAA Tournament was the worst possible outcome.
As for Maryland’s pitching, there was hope it had turned a corner after a dominant week in the Big Ten Tournament, only surrendering five runs in four games. The problem was, it had not faced an offense as potent as Wake Forest all year.
The 21 runs that Wake Forest plated were largely due to a massive gap between Maryland’s top options and the back half of its bullpen. Fifth-year right-handed pitcher Kenny Lippman, redshirt junior David Falco Jr. and Savacool were the only pitchers on the staff with an ERA below five. After that, the numbers were ugly.
After Dean was rocked, the Terps turned to redshirt sophomore right-handed pitcher Nigel Belgrave, who couldn’t record an out. That was the turning point in the game, in terms of the Terps entered a deficit they couldn’t get themselves out of. Belgrave has shown he has the stuff to be an effective closer and has garnered some MLB draft buzz, but his command in the back half of the season was subpar. In his final four appearances, he recorded only three outs and allowed six earned runs, six hits and five walks.
He continued to struggle the day after, coming in for sophomore left-handed pitcher Andrew Johnson after he started to falter following three strong innings. Belgrave turned an 8-5 advantage with two outs into a 10-8 deficit.
Junior transfers Tommy Kane and Nate Haberthier also both struggled mightily in the season. In addition, sophomore Ryan Van Buren was inconsistent and juniors Logan Ott and Johnson took a while to come into their own.
Other than McCoy, Maryland’s young pitchers weren’t ready to contribute in a high-stakes game, and never looked steady. When the game was out of reach, Vaughn sent out freshmen Caleb Estes and Joey Colucci, who both had a rude awakening in their first post-season appearances.
To make up for the expected losses of Savacool, Dean and Lippman, the Terps will need to hit the transfer portal and the recruiting trail to get themselves up to speed on the mound.
“You always know this day’s coming,” Vaughn said after his team’s season-ending loss on Sunday.
Even though the Terps saw their campaign come to a close earlier than they would’ve liked, the 2023 season was a historic one. The sheer amount of records that were broken in the span of four months was astounding.
Lorusso hit 105 RBIs, something that hasn’t been done in Division I in 20 years. Shaw, who is likely to have his name called in the first round of the MLB draft, set the program’s career home run record. Shliger, along with leading the team as captain, broke the program record for runs in a single season, which was once held by hitting coach Matt Swope.
With Shliger and Shaw both likely heading to the draft, they shared their emotions after the season.
“I think we’re gonna be remembered down the road as a really, really successful time for Maryland baseball,” Shaw said.
“This place is very special to me,” Shliger said. “...this team will go to Omaha one year.”
Also leaving the program is fifth-year outfielder Matt Woods, who exhausted his eligibility. As well, senior oufielder Bobby Zmarzlak has yet to announce if he will return for a fifth year.
With the mass exodus of talent leaving, Vaughn voiced disappointment in what could have been.
“I’m gonna remember this group as a lot of winners,” he said. “They broke a lot of records you’re not gonna see broken for a [long] time... I’ll always wonder what I could have done differently to help us get through [regionals] and knock that thing down.”