After losing its opening weekend series to Michigan State and splitting last weekend’s four-game set with Rutgers, Maryland baseball looks to take its first series victory this weekend against Penn State in Happy Valley.
Owning a mediocre 3-5 record, the Terps have been buoyed by solid offensive performances by sophomore designated hitter Bobby Zmarzlak and junior shortstop Benjamin Cowles. Both have been dynamic and important pieces in the middle of the Maryland lineup so far.
Maryland’s pitching has been somewhat less impressive in the young season. Freshman right-hander Jason Savacool has been the lone bright spot out of the starting rotation, pitching to a 3.68 ERA over two winning starts.
“We’ve done a pretty good job on the pitching staff side of not walking people,” head coach Rob Vaughn said. “We’ve given up way too many free bases in other ways. Way too many stolen bases, way too many wild pitch/passed balls ... little things like that.”
Saturday and Sunday’s games are scheduled to start at 1 pm and Monday’s series finale will air at 4 pm. All games are being televised on BTN Plus.
Penn State Nittany Lions (2-6)
Head Coach Rob Cooper’s eighth season leading the way for Penn State still lacks a series win, splitting and losing four-game sets to Northwestern and Indiana, respectively. Cooper is looking to build upon a 10-5 record from last season, bringing back a handful of experienced talent and incorporating young stars in an effort to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000.
Hitters to know
Redshirt freshman catcher Josh Spiegel is the Nittany Lions’ most dangerous offensive threat. The Jennette, Pennsylvania native is slashing .346/.414/.808 over eight games, adding six RBI and a team-best three home runs. Expect Spiegel to be a common contributor in the middle of the Penn State lineup with conference top-five efforts in both slugging percentage and home runs.
Freshman outfielder Johnny Piacentino has made his presence known in the Big Ten so far. He is batting a solid .269 in 2021 and shares the team lead in home runs (3). The Penn State youngster holds the team lead in RBI and walks, and will be a patient but dangerous bat in the Nittany Lion lineup this weekend.
Senior infielder Homer Gavin is the most notable veteran in the Penn State lineup so far this season. Slashing .300/.382/.467 on the year, Gavin brings a contact first approach and is third on the team in total bases (14). He is also the team’s leading base stealer (2) and has shown his ability to leg out doubles (3) and triples (1) as well. Look for Gavin to get on base early and often near the top of the order in this series.
Pitchers to know
Junior right-hander Conor Larkin has been the most prolific pitcher in Cooper’s weekend rotation this season. Boasting a conference-10th 3.00 ERA with 15 strikeouts over nine innings, the in-state native is coming off of a five inning two-hit performance in last weekend’s loss to a dangerous Indiana team. With only two walks on the year, Larkin will be in command on the bump in a game two faceoff against right-handed pitcher Connor Staine.
Junior right-hander Bailey Dees doesn’t stand out with his ERA numbers, but his experience and skill on the mound shouldn’t be downplayed. He’ll be Penn State’s game one starter and pitched well against a powerful Northwestern team on opening weekend. The junior has 12 strikeouts and only three walks on the season and has surrendered just two extra base hits in 9.1 innings.
Freshman right-hander Jaden Henline isn’t in this weekend’s rotation as of Friday, but could very well make an appearance out of the bullpen to provide some distance in relief. The youngster has a team-third 3.34 ERA and has also surrendered only two extra base hits. While he hasn’t pitched more than 4.1 innings in either of his starts, he was able to hold off both Northwestern and Indiana in both of those appearances and has shown that he can work around Big Ten lineups.
Starting pitching. Penn State’s starters have been solid all around this season, putting in strong performances in their first two series. Their starters have surrendered two or fewer runs in six of their first eight games this year, and while the Nittany Lion bullpen has been a different story, the Terps will have to work hard to score early this weekend.
A difference-making offense. The Nittany Lions have played eight games. Six of them were decided by three or fewer runs, and five involved a Penn State failure to push more than two runs. While their bullpen has had its share of shaky outings late in games, the Penn State offense hasn’t been able to display depth throughout the lineup and has had trouble putting games away with their bats, as well as scoring down the stretch so far this year.
Three things to watch
1. Reinforcements are on the way for Rob Vaughn’s squad. Junior first baseman Maxwell Costes and senior catcher Justin Vought are both probable to be cleared of their injuries and available at some point in this series. Vought has yet to touch the field, but Costes was solid on opening weekend against Michigan State, batting .300 over 10 at-bats. Vought has been a mainstay behind the dish for the last two years and will surely garner innings when he returns.
“Max is day to day ... he’s taken ground balls this week, he’s taken batting practice the last few days,” Vaughn said. “He felt great yesterday, you know, when he hit he told me, ‘Wrist feels awesome, I’m good to go’ ... he’s definitely available.”
2. Benjamin Cowles is red-hot at the plate. Cowles has been carrying the Terps’ offense. The New York native is slashing .375/.452/1.125 and is tied for the conference lead in home runs (6), responsible for half of Maryland’s conference-second home run total this year (12). The reigning Big Ten Player of the Week’s 1.125 slugging percentage is also the best in the conference, and he’s coming off of a Rutgers series in which he hit four homers and drove in eight runs.
Cowles said he won’t be changing his approach going into a ballpark in State College, Pennslyvania that’s less hitter–friendly than Shipley Field.
“I’m not really a power hitter, if I run into one, I run into one. I’m just trying to get on base, steal bags and score runs for our team,” Cowles said. “So I’ve been, throughout the week, getting with the hitting coach and working a little bit to stay consistent.”
3. Maryland starting pitching will look to put it all together this weekend. Game one starter and redshirt sophomore Sean Burke has had trouble in the first innings of both of his starts thus far, but has been able to buckle down to salvage solid starts. His stuff has been electrifying — he boasts a powerful fastball and a wipeout slider — but Michigan State and Rutgers were able to strike first to keep the Terps playing from behind. Look for Burke to shore up his first inning woes and put forth a strong effort on Saturday.
“The bulk of [my] runs are coming in the first inning,” Burke said on the adjustments he has made going into this weekend’s games. “I think a mindset shift of coming out like a closer in the first inning this time around and really trying to throw up a zero in the first inning.”