John Szefc and his squad breathed a sigh of relief on Monday afternoon when Maryland was selected to the NCAA Tournament.
A month ago, the Terps probably wouldn’t have thought that they would sweat when the brackets came out. However, late season struggles forced Maryland to play well in the Big Ten Tournament to solidify itself as a postseason-worthy club.
Now that they’re in the field, the Terps’ late-season struggles carry less weight. Every club is 0-0 with the chance to advance.
But what needs to happen for Maryland to make that magical run? There’s no doubt that Szefc has a considerable amount of talent with which to work; it’s just a matter of playing up to the level they were at when the Terps won seven in a row and sat atop the Big Ten standings in late April.
Maryland’s first tournament game set for this Friday at 2 p.m. ET against West Virginia. The Terps won’t be considered favorites to even survive the Winston-Salem region, but here are a few factors that could swing the odds into their favor.
1. The Terps need to play close to flawless in the field.
Maryland plays best when it’s solid with the glove, as many teams do. The Terps have strong defensive players up the middle in Kevin Smith and Nick Dunn, but there have been times when the duo has failed to back up their pitching staff. Even though both players have good skills with the glove, each recorded double-digit errors in the regular season. There is no one primary reason why the middle infielders have struggled at times, they just need to be on top of their games so the pitchers have room to make some mistakes.
It will also be interesting to see who Szefc uses behind the plate, considering that Justin Morris is easily Maryland’s best defensive backstop. However, Szefc is likely to continue to pair up his catchers with certain hurlers, as he’s done all season. If Maryland can limits its errors, it would free the team up to play looser in other areas, which would be a great help considering the recent struggles.
2. Brian Shaffer has to be the ace he’s been all season long.
The Big Ten Pitcher of the Year and midseason Golden Spikes Award finalist has been even better than he was during his outstanding 2016 campaign. Shaffer dominated opposing lineups for most of the season. His 2.18 ERA and 102 strikeouts speak for themselves. However, that guy didn’t show up in the Terps’ first conference tournament game against Iowa. He still went into the seventh inning, but also surrendered seven earned runs. It’s easy to chalk this up as an aberration, but it’s a little concerning given that this was his final start before the NCAA tourney.
The junior right-hander needs to set the tone and provide the Terps with a typical Shaffer start. Taylor Bloom has pitched better lately, but he’s also had moments where it was clear from the beginning that he wasn’t going to last long. Tyler Blohm has the potential to be the club’s ace one day, but he’s still a freshman, and it’s tough to predict how the lefty will handle the spotlight if given the chance. Shaffer has been Maryland’s MVP all season long, and he has to continue to carry the pitching staff whenever he gets the opportunity.
3. The Terps cannot allow big innings late in games.
There have been plenty of times that the Terps have started out hot with the bat and really stunted any hope of their opponent making a comeback. The team has also shown a propensity for making comebacks of their own, especially in midweek contests. Even against Northwestern on Sunday, Maryland scored five unanswered runs after trailing 6-0 to open the Big Ten tournament tilt. We’ve seen that Maryland can recover from early deficits because the offense has shown capable of keeping its composure and relying on its talent in difficult situations. What can’t happen is for a team to get the better of the Maryland pitching staff in the late innings.
The Terps’ bullpen recovered from a dreadful opening to the season, relying on the likes of Ryan Selmer, Andrew Miller and Jared Price in critical moments. If a game is neck-and-neck at any point during this tournament, Maryland cannot have its heart ripped out because a team took advantage of some spotty relief pitching.
4. A.J. Lee needs to continue to his breakout performance
Lee has been perhaps the most surprisingly productive player on this Maryland team. The sophomore took over the starting role at third base from former Terp Andrew Bechtold, but going into the season, it wasn’t a guarantee that Lee would get regular at-bats. He did eventually grab a firm hold of that spot with the way he’s been mashing balls for most of the year, especially as of late. He ended the season with a stellar .318 batting average and a slugging percentage that sat just below .500. You can see in his approach and in his hard contact that Lee is in the zone at the plate. He’s not as decorated as Marty Costes, Kevin Smith and Nick Dunn, but Lee is arguably the key to the Maryland offense.
We’ve come to expect production at the top of the order, but if the Terps hope to advance, they need to get production from their offense throughout the lineup. Now hitting fifth in the order after batting ninth for most of the season, Lee is going to have the responsibility to drive in the likes of Zach Jancarski, Brandon Gum, Costes and Dunn. All of them have great on-base capabilities, but for the offense to fully break out, the Terps need a strong tournament performance from Lee.
5. Maryland needs a little bit of luck.
Over the past few weeks, Maryland hasn’t looked like a club that would make a deep run. The Terps did get a reasonable draw by not having to play in a top-eight seed’s region, but even if the Terps find their way out of Winston-Salem, they’ll likely face a very talented Florida team who’s been competing with the best of the best in the SEC all year long.
Maryland does not have the talent to match up with the national seeds, so that means the Terps are going to have to catch some breaks if they’re going to make a magical and unexpected run to the College World Series. Whether it’s a freak play in the field or just an injury to a key player on the other side, Maryland could use something unexpected if it wants to pull off a few upsets.