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Where does Maryland baseball stand in the Big Ten?

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Our weekly roundtable touches on the Terps’ series at Nebraska and midweek split against West Virginia and George Mason.

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Sung Min Kim/Testudo Times

After only winning one game in Nebraska and going 1-1 in midweek games on Tuesday and Wednesday, Maryland baseball sits with an overall record of 21-11 and a 6-3 Big Ten mark.

After last weekend, the Terps now sit tied for third place with Michigan in the conference. They are trailing Minnesota (6-0) and Nebraska (4-1). Maryland won a series at home against Michigan and swept Rutgers on the road, but dropping two of three against the Huskers puts Maryland slightly behind its Big Ten preseason favorite status.

With a more than winnable home series set to start tomorrow against Penn State, there are a couple of questions with about a month left in the regular season. Our baseball beat writers discuss.

Maryland stumbled over the weekend and sits a bit lower in the Big Ten than some might have expected. Where do you see the Terps finishing in the conference by season’s end?

Greg: I expected the Terps to be the best team in the Big Ten at the start of the season, and I still expect them to sit near the top of the standings at the end of the regular season. However, I’m not so sure that Maryland is the best team in the conference. The primary factor for this shift in opinion is that I thought the Terps starting rotation would be a little better than they are pitching right now. Brian Shaffer has been excellent this year, but Taylor Bloom and Tyler Blohm have been inconsistent. I expected the freshman Blohm to hit some bumps in the road, I’m really more concerned about Bloom. His ERA has risen considerably since last season and his control has been much shakier than I expected. This uncertainty on Saturday and Sunday make it difficult for me to say that the Terps will be winning enough to be the premier of the Big Ten.

Andrew: The B1G is beginning to look like most pundits expected: Maryland, Michigan, and Nebraska battling it out. The surprise team has been Minnesota, who is red hot right now with an 11 game win streak. The Gophers don’t face Maryland or Michigan this season, so they might be able to maintain their current #1 spot. One could argue that Maryland’s B1G schedule from here on is mild. I can envision the Terps winning every remaining B1G series, with one or two sweeps thrown in. So I expect the Terps to be in the thick of the B1G title chase. Nick Dunn and Madison Nickens (until Tuesday’s game) have been in a slump, and I believe that they will snap out of it soon. With A J Lee’s bat coming alive, and a bullpen that has been reliable to say the least, Maryland will be a better team over the next six weeks.

Alex: Like my two colleagues alluded to above, the Big Ten is looking like a much better baseball conference this season compared to years previous. Many experts had low expectations for the conference this season, but they have been wrong thus far. With the way that teams like Michigan, Minnesota, and Nebraska are playing, Maryland is going to have a tough time trying to clinch the conference title. It is more than possible for them to do, however, with the up-and-down season that the Terps have had so far, it’s tough to tell ad the home stretch of the season comes into view. If they get hot once again, they have a good chance of winning the conference. Otherwise, I project them to get a top-4 finish, most likely 2nd or 3rd.

What do you make of Taylor Bloom’s struggles in the starting rotation this season? Do you see a turnaround coming over the next month?

Greg: As I said before, Bloom’s struggles have been one of the more unexpected turn of events for the 2017 Maryland baseball program. His stuff has mostly remained the same, but it’s his control that has let the junior down. His mechanics look similar to how he pitched in 2016, so I’m wondering if he may be struggling with a minor injury. It’s always possible that last year was more of a fluke and Bloom is just not as good at commanding his pitches as I thought. But it’s tough to take that position because Bloom just pitched so well in 2016. I don’t expect the right hander to suddenly turn it around. He does need a good start to get him back on track because John Szefc needs him to eat up innings.

Andrew: Bloom is not an overpowering pitcher. He gets by with a nasty change-up and pinpoint control. If his control is off then he’s no longer dominant. This season has been the first time in his collegiate career that Bloom has had issues with plate location. It’s not simply walks, but also hit batsmen and wild pitches. If it were something physical then he wouldn’t have been asked to pitch this past Tuesday. It’s really odd and I hope that he can sort things out over the next few weeks, or Maryland won’t be going far in any post-season tournaments.

Alex: I think it has been surprising above anything that Bloom has struggled the way he has. Brian Shaffer has really been the Terps’ ace this season, and Blohm has been right behind him, though Blohm hasn't been able to work into the later innings the season. Above anything, it’s been Bloom’s control that has let him down. That is a major concern going into the final stretch of the season, and possibly going into the NCAA Tournament. If the Terps want to go far, they need Bloom to get back to his 2016 form. I do think he can improve in the next month, if he can improve his control. Even a slight improvement is beneficial for the team, but he is more than capable of doing so.

Speaking of Bloom, John Szefc decided to start the right-hander on Tuesday, which led to mixed results. Hunter Parsons got the nod on Wednesday and was hit hard. With the Terps still struggling to find reliable midweek starters, what do you see as Szefc’s next move in this area?

Greg: This has been a tremendous problem for the Terps manager. He has used five different starters ranging from expected midweek starting options in Parsons and Cameron Enck to the rather inexperienced John Murphy. At this point, there really hasn’t been any pitcher that has shown themselves as a capable midweek starting option. If I were Szefc, I would roll with who has the best talent and even though he’s struggled mightily this year, Hunter Parsons has the highest upside of any hurler Szefc could turn to in this role. Enck should be the backup option for the same reason, but this is a situation that probably won’t get that much better and it’s an issue that the team will just have to deal with moving forward.

Andrew: Lol, have Crumbs start. Seriously, there’s no rhyme or reason why so many pitchers who do well in relief stints fall apart on midweek starts. It’s really inexplicable. I think that there are three options: 1) Let Parsons have another start, 2) Have eight pitchers throw one + innings, or 3) Burn a redshirt and let Dignazio or Zoellner have an opportunity.

Alex: Honestly, Szefc shouldn’t put either Blohm or Shaffer in during midweek starts as they are vital for weekend series. Parsons and Enck can both do the job, but since that necessarily hasn’t worked out well the season, the best thing I think Szefc should be doing is stretching out his bullpen. Have relievers pitch 1-3 innings each and split up the time. That way, they can work on not only elongating themselves and building up stamina, but working in their pitch arsenal. Throw a long reliever in there. If Szefc really wanted to, he could throw Shaffer and Blohm in, but that would hurt him for the weekend series, so having someone like Andrew Miller, Tayler Stiles, Ryan Selmer, or Jared Price pitch a few innings each could be beneficial for the Terps. Obviously, the idea is not to burn them out for the weekend series, but it would save the arms of the starters.

Kevin Smith just returned from injury on Wednesday. How big of an effect will he have on the Terps’ offense and overall play?

Greg: This is a huge development for the Terps. Senior and former walk-on Patrick Hisle has done an admirable job filling in for the preseason Big Ten player of the year favorite, but it’s just not the same when Kevin Smith isn’t pencilled into the batting order. He’s performed slightly below expectations with the bat, but he still has been a reliable power threat and showed that again by hitting a home run in his first game back against George Mason. He was the designated hitter for that contest, but I expect him to play shortstop this weekend. He’s a much better fielder and hitter than what Maryland replaced him with, so expect the overall play of the team to get better now that one of their leaders and better players is back on the field. His return could mean a few more runs and slightly better defense in the games to come.

Andrew: It will have a positive effect that will permeate throughout the lineup and infield. No disrespect meant for Pat Hisle, who did as good a job as could be asked for given the situation. But Smith brings average, power, and an amazing glove that really sets him apart.

Alex: As out current president likes to say, “YUUUUUUGE!” I think getting Smith back, even with limited playing time, is crucial for the Terps success. He was having a great start to the season, hitting 7 home runs and driving in 21. Plus, his defense is something that cannot be easily replaced. Having him back should boost some confidence back into the Terps. Patrick Hisle did well in his place, but Smith is a commodity that a competitive team, like Maryland, needs in their lineup if they want to compete in June.