Almost a full calendar year ago, Maryland baseball touched down in Fort Worth, Texas, ready to suit up for a marquee matchup against perennial powerhouse TCU before starting up conference play for the 2020 season. The team was 10-5 at the time.
In the span of a few short hours, the NCAA canceled its winter sports postseason and the entirety of its spring sports schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For the Terps, the offseason began just weeks after their first game.
Coming off of a 29-29 (12-12 Big Ten) effort in their last full season, the Terps will compete with a deep Big Ten conference and even more challenging Division I slate as head coach Rob Vaughn’s club pushes for its first NCAA tournament bid since 2017.
Key players lost
Given the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility for all spring sports athletes, allowing Maryland to bring back the vast majority of last year’s roster.
Out of the 16 position players that saw the field last season, 13 will return for the Terps this year. Most notable of those three losses is Tavan Shahidi, a catcher who hit .130 over eight starts in 2020 and transferred to Clarke University for the 2021 season. Michael Pineiro and Brenton Davis also left the team, transferring to Pointe Loma Nazarene University and Bellevue University, respectively.
Maryland’s pitching staff remains largely intact as well. Thirteen out of 14 pitchers that appeared in games for the Terps last season have returned for this season, creating a mix of experience and youth on a staff that should remain steady-handed throughout the season. Billy Phillips and Mike Vasturia are the two lone departures on the staff; Phillips was a non-factor for the team, but Vasturia showed improvement as a reliever last season.
Top players returning
Maryland returns its entire starting lineup from last season, a squad led by junior first baseman Maxwell Costes and senior outfielders Randy Bednar and Chris Alleyne.
Costes comes into the 2021 season well-recognized as one of the best first basemen in the country. The D1Baseball.com Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year and USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award watchlist selection looks to solidify himself as the most prolific mainstay in the middle of a Maryland lineup since Tampa Bay Ray breakout star Brandon Lowe led the Terps to the 2014 Charlottesville Super Regional.
“The guy can just hit,” Vaughn said. “He’s been an RBI machine, he’s been a hit machine. We’re hoping and expecting him to go out there and do what he does.”
In addition to having the second on-base percentage in the nation, Costes was the team leader in batting (.432), on-base percentage (.620), slugging (.750), home runs (4) and walks (16) through 15 games last season. Expect Costes to be the biggest power threat in this Terps lineup.
Although Costes’ ability to produce the long ball stole headlines last spring, Bednar’s offensive prowess shouldn’t be overlooked. His .387/.459/.581 2020 slash line featured the most extra-base hits on the team (10), and he swiped five bags in a display of base-stealing speed in a small sample size last year.
A solid defender who has only committed three errors over three seasons in College Park, Bednar looks to slot into the two-hole in the lineup.
Alleyne began to settle into an offensive rhythm before last season’s abrupt cancellation as well, slashing .333/.413/.500 over 15 games. The speedy leadoff hitter is the perfect table-setter for Bednar and Costes, and he can provide some pop with his bat as well. He’ll captain the outfield for the Terps in 2021.
The double-play duo of Benjamin Cowles and Austin Chavis looks to continue to patrol the middle of Maryland’s infield in 2021. Cowles flashed a power stroke with a team-second three homers, which doubled his career total, and Chavis turned the lineup over well for the Terps last year.
“If I end up running into one, I’ll run into one,” Cowles said on his sophomore year surge. “My job at the plate is to get on base, steal bases and create havoc, and obviously get down bunts when needed, but I would love to continue that track throughout the season.”
Senior catcher Justin Vought completes an experienced up-the-middle defense for Maryland and is a presence in the middle of the lineup as well. His familiarity with some of the more seasoned veterans on the pitching staff should prove to be fruitful for the Terps this season.
“It’s just a boost of confidence knowing you have a dude back there who’s going to be able to throw guys out and frame pitches,” redshirt sophomore right-hander Sean Burke said. “He’s mature in how he approaches the game and calls the game.”
Youngsters Bobby Zmarzlak and Matt Orlando will be impactful offensive producers as well, as will senior Tommy Gardiner.
Leading the Maryland pitching rotation will be the 6-foot-6 redshirt sophomore and Perfect Game Preseason All-Conference righty Burke. He pitched to a 1.99 ERA and amassed 35 strikeouts over 22.2 innings in 2020. And Burke has expanded his repertoire to accompany his power fastball.
“His secondary stuff has gotten much, much better,” Vaughn said. “He’s throwing two legit breaking balls right now.” On Burke’s new slider, Vaughn said: “I stand behind [the batting cage] for most scrimmages and I’m just glad I don’t hit anymore because I can’t see it.”
Senior lefty Sean Fisher was last year’s Friday night starter, tossing a team-second 20.2 innings at a 5.66 ERA. Sophomore righty Nick Dean was the only other Maryland starter to tally more than 20 innings last season, impressing in his freshman season, but expect righties Elliot Zoellner and Connor Staine to step up on the mound for the Terps this year.
Ranked third in the Big Ten and 57th in the country by Perfect Game, Maryland’s 2020 recruiting class features a solid group of young talent that will begin to make an impact in their first season.
Most notable is right-handed pitcher and New York native Jason Savacool. The No. 61 recruit in the country, according to PG, Savacool is already turning heads; he was named as the Big Ten Preseason Newcomer of the Year by Baseball America.
Catcher and DeMatha Catholic alum Blake Badman should gain valuable experience under veteran backstop Vought. The state’s No. 2 prep catcher in the 2020 class, per PG, Badman hit .412 with 18 home runs over his high school career.
Delaware’s fourth-best 2020 prospect Kevin Keister joins Matt Shaw as the lone infielders in the class. Keister was a Delaware Gatorade Player of the Year finalist in his senior season, and Shaw was the No. 9 recruit in his home state of Massachusetts, according to Perfect Game.
Fellow Massachusetts native Nigel Belgrave joins Gavin Stellpflug and in-state standout Chris Bookhultz as the new right-handed pitchers to join the Terps. Bookhultz pitched to a 0.51 ERA in 2019, and the 6-foot-6 Stellpflug had a 38-11 record between the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
Lefties Ryan Murphy and Logan Ott will look to pick up innings in support of the deep Maryland rotation as well. Murphy boasted a 1.80 ERA over his prep career, and Ott racked up 195 strikeouts over 119 innings over the course of two high school seasons.
The Terps missed out on their highest-rated recruit Alex Santos, who was taken out of Mount Saint Michael Academy in the second round of the 2020 MLB Draft by the Houston Astros.
A 10-5 start to 2020 proved the future to be bright for Maryland baseball, and retaining the majority of an already experienced roster will make this a tough team to beat this season.
This year’s conference exclusive campaign will feature several key matchups, starting with the season-opening four-game set against Michigan State in Greenville, South Carolina.
Weekend series against Minnesota, Illinois, Purdue and Michigan make up the majority of the Terps’ home stretch through a 44-game schedule.
Despite the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and traversing through a treacherous Big Ten schedule, Vaughn believes his players are just eager to get back out on the diamond.
“I think our guys are excited. Shoot, I think you could tell our guys they were playing the Yankees for 56 games this year and they’d be jacked up about it.”
D1baseball.com projects the Terps to finish third and to snag an NCAA Tournament bid in a heavily contested Big Ten. Reigning National Championship runner-up Michigan is expected to take the conference title, but this year’s Maryland squad believes it can compete with the field.
“Honestly, I think we want to take on everybody. We feel like we have something amazing here this year,” Costes said. “I don’t necessarily think that we’re a surprising team. I think we’re going to be who we are, and that’s going to be a good team that is capable of beating anyone.”