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Maryland baseball weekend preview: Iowa and Ohio State

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The Terps look to continue their winning ways in the first split-series of the season.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

With their first series victory of the season under their belt, Maryland baseball will travel to Columbus, Ohio to play their first split-series of the season against Iowa (4-7) and Ohio State (6-5) this weekend.

The first of three split-series on the season, this weekend’s four-game set may be the most important series of the season so far as the Terps (5-6) look to continue their solid play and pull away from the middle of the pack in the Big Ten.

“It’s a great challenge, you know,” Senior shortstop Benjamin Cowles. “They’re both good teams ... they both have good pitching, good hitting. It’ll be good for us to match up with them.”

With the expected return of junior first baseman Maxwell Costes to the everyday lineup and the hot bats of senior right fielder Randy Bednar and junior shortstop Benjamin Cowles, the Terps figure to improve on their already staggering offensive attack. Maryland is top-three in the league in RBI, triples, home runs, and slugging percentage.

The Terps will run out a slightly different pitching rotation this weekend. Redshirt sophomore right-hander Sean Burke will toe the rubber in game one, followed by sophomore righty Connor Staine. Sophomore righty Nick Dean will make his season debut in game three, and reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week Jason Savacool will start in the series finale on Monday.

Saturday’s series opener against Iowa will start at 5 pm. Sunday’s doubleheader game one will start at noon against the Hawkeyes, and game two will open a two-game stretch against Ohio State at 4 p.m. The first pitch of Monday’s finale will be at 3 pm. All games will be televised on BTN Plus.

Iowa Hawkeyes (4-7)

Head Coach Rick Heller's eighth season at the helm for the Hawkeyes figures to be yet another successful one despite his team’s mediocre start. The Hawkeye skipper has reached two NCAA regionals in his tenure and won Iowa’s first Big Ten Tournament title since 1990 in 2017. Coming off of a 10 win campaign in last year’s shortened season, Heller will use an experienced and deep roster to navigate a loaded league this year.

“The one thing I know really well is that I know Rick Heller,” head coach Rob Vaughn said. “I believe that Rick Heller is honestly one of the best baseball coaches in the country, much less our conference ... the dude knows how to coach. [His players] take on his personality, they’re tough, they do the little things right, they compete really hard.”

Hitters to know

Redshirt senior infielder Matthew Sosa leads the Hawkeyes in batting average (.324), on-base percentage (.444), hits (12), and doubles (4) (out of players averaging more than two at-bats per game). With an aggressive approach and base-stealing speed, expect Sosa to play a role near the top of the Iowa lineup.

Redshirt senior outfielder Ben Norman is the biggest power threat in the Iowa lineup. He leads players with more than 15 at-bats in home runs (3), slugging percentage (.615), and RBI (10). Norman isn’t your traditional slugger, however, he also leads the team in stolen bases (5) and spearheads a Hawkeye running game that is tied for the conference lead in stolen bases.

Pitchers to know

Redshirt junior left-hander and outfielder Trenton Wallace is likely the most dynamic player on the Hawkeye roster. While he isn’t slated to face Maryland in this weekend’s series, he has surrendered just two earned runs over eighteen innings pitched for a league-best 1.00 ERA. Both of those earned runs came against Michigan on opening weekend, and in his two starts since, Wallace has put up a 13IP/4H/18K/0.00 ERA line. He’ll likely toe the rubber against Ohio State but is still a dangerous arm if coach Heller needs a spot-start.

Redshirt sophomore right-hander Drew Irvine will start in game one for Iowa and has been solid in three starts so far. His bloated 6.55 ERA is largely due to a rough start against Michigan on opening weekend but has since bounced back to turn in quality outings. He has shown strikeout stuff (15Ks in 11IP) and will create tough at-bats against the Terps this weekend.

Strength

Stealing bases. The Hawkeyes are a true threat on the base paths. They’re tied for the conference lead in swiped bags (14) and have only been caught stealing twice in 11 games. The Terps will have to rely on strong play from both their pitchers and catchers to control the running game and keep Iowa from getting into scoring position early and often.

Weakness

Starting pitching. Iowa has yet to put the pieces together on the mound. Both starters in this weekend’s series have ERAs over 6.00 and have just one win between them. They will be put to the test against a red-hot Maryland lineup that is getting back to full strength.

Ohio State Buckeyes (6-5)

Head Coach Greg Beals has been with the Buckeyes for over a decade, coaching them to a 309-243 record over the course of ten seasons. Now in his eleventh, he aims to bring Ohio State to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in six years. Beals has also led the Buckeyes to great success in the Big Ten Tournament, winning two of the last four tournament titles (2019 and 2016). A force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten, Beals’ Buckeyes will compete for an NCAA Tournament bid with the Terps down the stretch.

Hitters to know

Freshman outfielder Kade Kern is the most dangerous hitter in the Buckeye lineup. He leads his squad in batting average (.390), doubles (4), on-base percentage (.479), and slugging percentage (.610). The youngster is difficult to put down on strikes and will be a tough out and run-scoring threat in the heart of the Ohio State lineup.

Sophomore outfielder Mitchell Okuley is Ohio State’s biggest power threat. He’s mashed three home runs in 36 at-bats, driving in a team-second eight RBI and slugging .528 on the season. Expect Okuley to have opportunities to drive in Kern and the rest of the top of the Buckeye lineup this weekend.

Pitchers to know

Junior right-hander Jack Neely will be OSU’s game one starter against the Terps. Neely leads Buckeye starters with a 4.26 ERA, holding opposing hitters to a paltry .196 batting average, good for tenth best in the conference. Neely won’t overpower hitters, but works aggressively and forces soft contact. He’s given up just nine hits over 12.2 innings.

Junior right-hander Bayden Root has been a force out of the Buckeye bullpen. The Kokomo, Indiana native is pitching to a 1.23 ERA over 7.1 innings and has surrendered just two extra-base hits this season. He’s shown the ability to hold opponents off late in games, and will certainly be called on by coach Beals this weekend.

Strength

The back end of the bullpen. In most of its wins, Ohio State has leveraged shutdown performances from its bullpen to close the door in the final third of the game. Six Buckeyes that have pitched at least one inning this season own ERAs of 1.40 or less. The Buckeye staff had trouble last weekend with a potent Rutgers lineup but shut down a good Illinois team on opening weekend.

Weakness

Hitting throughout the lineup. Ohio State has just one player batting over .300 in its lineup. While batting average isn’t an all-encompassing metric for offensive success, the Buckeyes will need to rely on situational hitting and smart base running against Dean and Savacool.

Three things to watch

1. Maryland’s lineup has returned to full strength. Junior first baseman Maxwell Costes and senior catcher Justin Vought will be back in the everyday lineup this weekend. While Maryland’s offense fared well against Rutgers and Penn State without him, Costes’ presence produces yet another tough out for opposing pitchers and provides protection for Bednar and sophomore designated hitter Bobby Zmarzlak in the heart of the lineup.

While Maryland’s backstops have been solid through the first quarter of the season, Vought will bring the experience necessary to work with Vaughn’s talented pitching staff. Aside from being a solid bat in the bottom of the Terps’ lineup, expect Vaughn to be a trustworthy confidante of Maryland pitchers as he catches the majority of games going forward.

“My wrist feels great. I’m looking forward to getting to play a full weekend,” Costes said. “I finally played a full game on Monday, felt good enough to play. We’re going to see how it goes this weekend, hopefully, I can play a full [series].”

2. Sean Burke is due for a bounce-back. Redshirt sophomore right-hander Sean Burke has yet to fall into a groove. The No. 6 draft prospect in the conference per D1Baseball.com is pitching to a 6.46 ERA over three starts. His strikeout ability is present with 28 punch-outs in 15.1 innings, and he is bound to put it all together at some point in the first half of the season. Expect to see a much stronger Burke in game one this weekend.

3. Benjamin Cowles is still the most dangerous bat in the Maryland order. Cowles cooled off a bit last weekend after his lights-out performance against Rutgers the weekend prior. While a 4-11 performance against Penn State may have been a step below his work from earlier in the season, Cowles is still the biggest run producer on the team (16 RBI) and leads the squad with a .371/.467/1.000 slash line. Expect Cowles to remain a potent threat in the middle of the Maryland lineup.

“It pretty much just boils down to my approach, knowing who I am and staying true to who I am,” Cowles said on making adjustments week-to-week. “Like I’ve said, I’m a guy that needs to get on base and score runs for our team. If I end up running into a ball and it goes over the fence, I end up running into one.”