Fifty one weeks after last year’s 10-5 start was abruptly halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Maryland baseball will kick off its 2021 season Friday with a four-game series against Michigan State in Greenville, South Carolina.
The Terps will lean on a strong pitching staff led by redshirt sophomore right-hander Sean Burke, who will take the mound on Friday night. Senior left-hander Sean Fisher, sophomore right-hander Connor Staine and freshman right-hander Jason Savacool will round out the rotation with starts on Saturday afternoon, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon, respectively.
Maryland’s offense will look to continue last year’s hot start with an experienced lineup and talented youngsters filling out the starting nine.
Despite the abnormally long offseason and having not played against Big Ten competition since 2019, Head Coach Rob Vaughn’s players said there are no nerves as they prepare to take the field for the first time in almost a full calendar year.
“I’m just really excited to go out there and compete against a team other than ourselves, especially since it’s been such a long time,” senior right fielder Randy Bednar said. “For me, it's about just trying to find that balance between getting really excited, which I know is inevitable, and just being relaxed when the game starts so I can do what I do best.”
First pitch on Friday is scheduled for 6:30 pm. Saturday’s doubleheader games will start at 4:30 pm and 7:30 pm, and Sunday’s finale will begin at 1:30 pm. Every contest can be watched on BTN Plus.
2020 record: 9-6
Head Coach Jake Boss Jr. is entering his 13th season at the helm for the Spartans, boasting a 342-275 record over that span. In the last decade of his tenure, Michigan State has a Big Ten regular season title and an NCAA Tournament berth. After a solid start to the 2020 season and a talented core of players, expect the Spartans to be a presence in a Big Ten conference that is largely up for grabs.
Hitters to know
Senior infielder and outfielder Bailey Peterson swung a hot bat out of the gate last season, slashing .441/.528/.452 over 15 games and tying for the team lead in total bases (32) and walks (12). Peterson also led the team and conference in stolen bases (8) and was second in the Big Ten in batting average (.441). With a good understanding of the strike zone and a patient approach, expect Peterson to be tough to keep off of the bases this weekend.
Redshirt sophomore infielder Peter Ahn was the biggest all-around threat in the Michigan State lineup last season. In his second year on the field with the Spartans, the Wisconsin native shared the team lead in extra-base hits (7) and RBIs (15), and was 10th in the country in triples (3). Ahn will provide some thump from the middle of the lineup, but he knows when to take his walks as well. He’ll be difficult to get out.
Senior outfielder Bryce Kelley is another Spartan that can create problems on the basepaths. A .400 hitter in 2020, Kelley shared the team and conference lead in stolen bases with Peterson (8) and added a Big Ten top-five finish in hits (24). While he doesn’t have the power stroke of Peterson or Ahn, Kelley will still pose a problem at the top of the order for Maryland pitchers.
Pitchers to know
Redshirt junior right-hander Mason Erla would probably not be wearing white and green this weekend if not for a shortened MLB draft last year. This weekend’s game two starter pitched to an impressive 1.04 ERA over four starts in 2020 and was 10th in the nation in strikeouts (42) while only walking six batters over 26 innings. He was named as a Collegiate Baseball Preseason All-American.
“Mason Erla is kind of a proven commodity in this league. That dude can really pitch,” Vaughn said. “If you get on your heels with guys like that and let them bully you around, that’s when you can get into trouble.”
Senior right–hander Sam Benschoter will be the Spartans’ opening day starter. While the Michigan native’s numbers from last season don’t jump off the page, he has flashed an affinity for being aggressive around the strike zone and was third in the Big Ten and top-25 in the country in strikeouts per nine innings last year (14.73) and second on the team in strikeouts (30) in eight fewer innings of work than Erla. A couple of sub-par outings early on skewed his ERA (6.87), but expect Benschoter to be more than up to the task on Friday night.
Senior left–hander Jarret Olson is yet another Michigan state arm with strikeout prowess. He pitched to a 2.03 ERA in 2020 and was just behind both Erla and Benschoter in punchouts with 28. Olson also led the team in opponent’s batting average (.149) and surrendered just 13 hits in 26.2 innings. Although the Spartans have yet to announce a starter for games three and four, expect Olson to make an appearance on the mound this weekend.
The Spartans can flat out hit. Michigan State tallied 150 hits over the course of last year’s shortened season, good for second in the Big Ten. The top of the Spartan batting order knows how to get on base efficiently and provide scoring opportunities for the middle and bottom of the lineup.
Pitching Depth. Only five Michigan State pitchers with more than five innings pitched had ERAs below 6.00 last season. The first half of their weekend rotation is undoubtedly strong, but it will be interesting to see which Spartans step up on the bump this weekend for Boss Jr.
Three things to know
1. The Spartans are hard to stop when they’re given room to run. This Michigan State squad will bring back the majority of its most dangerous base stealers from the 2020 team. Against a group that went 31 for 39 on the bases, good for second in the Big Ten, controlling the running game is a must for Maryland pitchers and catchers.
“We got to really limit freebies with this team because they can run,” Vaughn said. “We have to play clean defense and make them hit their way on. If you give them freebies, if we kick the ball around the field, if we’re walking people and letting them on base that way it can become a track meet really quickly.”
2. Maryland’s lineup is strong and experienced at the top. The projected top three of the Terps’ batting order have proven they can crush Big Ten pitching. Chris Alleyne (No. 70 ranked outfielder in the country, per D1Baseball.com), Randy Bednar (No. 27 outfielder nationally per D1B) and Maxwell Costes (Preseason All-American per D1B) all hit well over .300 last season and knocked in a combined 38 RBI. Their skill and maturity at the plate makes the top of this Maryland lineup one of the best in the conference and they’re looking to help carry the team’s hot start over into 2021.
“The big thing is keeping that same energy,” Alleyne said. “Everyone was pulling the same weight last year, we all knew where we wanted to go, we had the same goals. I think this year is no different.”
3. Two Maryland pitchers will make their collegiate starting debuts on the mound this weekend. Staine and Savacool will be starting a game for the first time in their Maryland careers this weekend. Staine gained valuable experience out of the bullpen last season and Savacool proved he belonged in the weekend rotation over the course of fall practices and preseason work.
“When he got here in the fall, his stuff was good but he just threw a ton of pitches because he was trying to strike everybody out,” Vaughn said. “What I’ve seen since then is he’s matured more and more.”