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Maryland baseball weekend preview: Northwestern and Michigan

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The Terps look to build on a win in last weekend’s finale against two of the best teams in the Big Ten.

Photo from @TerpsBaseball

Coming off a rough last weekend in Ohio, where the team went 1-3 against Iowa and Ohio State, Maryland baseball will have an opportunity to bounce back at home against some of the best competition in the Big Ten.

In another pod series, Maryland will face Northwestern on Friday and Saturday, and then play Michigan on Sunday and Monday. Northwestern is coming to College Park on a two-game win streak, scoring double-digit runs in each of its wins over Illinois last weekend. Michigan is ranked No. 25 in the country and sits a half-game behind Indiana for first place in the Big Ten.

“Number one, we got a good opportunity tomorrow night,” head coach Rob Vaughn said. “We got a good team coming in and we got to do a really nice job of defending our home turf. The best teams I have ever been a part of here have taken care of business at home.”

While the Terps were inconsistent at the plate for much of their last series, the bats came alive in the final game, beating Ohio State 9-3 to avoid the series sweep. Infielder Benjamin Cowles has been phenomenal at the plate for Maryland this season, currently leading the Big Ten and ranking second in the nation in slugging. The senior captain Randy Bednar has also come alive for the Terps, recording multiple hits in seven of the last eight games.

The pitching rotation for the Terps this weekend will look similar to last weekend with Sean Burke getting the nod on Friday, Nick Dean on Saturday, Connor Staine on Sunday and Jason Savacool wrapping things up on Monday

Michigan Wolverines (11-4)

Head Coach Erik Bakich is in his ninth season leading the Wolverines and has them near the top of the Big Ten 15 games into the season. Bakich has an impressive resume with just seven full seasons under his belt in Ann Arbor (last season was cut short due to COVID-19). In 2019, Bakich received the National Coach of the Year award. Bakich has led the program to three NCAA tournament bids, an NCAA runner-up finish and a Big Ten conference tournament title. Michigan has become a powerhouse program in recent years under the leadership of Bakich.

This season, up until March 21, the Wolverines dropped just two games. After back-to-back losses to Michigan State and Penn State on March 22 and March 26, Michigan bounced back with a 17-4 victory over Penn State followed by a ten-inning 8-6 victory over the Nittany Lions later that day.

Pitchers to know

Sophomore left-hander Jacob Denner will take the mound for Michigan on Sunday afternoon in the first game against Maryland, which will be the second game of the day for the Wolverines. The left-handed pitcher from New Jersey has made four starts on the season with just one win to show for it. Denner has allowed 18 hits, while also recording 18 strikeouts.

Senior right-hander Blake Beers will toe the rubber for the Wolverines in the pod-series finale on Monday. The right-handed pitcher has yet to record a win through four starts this season. However, he does lead the team in ERA, posting a 6.75 mark. Beers has 11 strikeouts on the year.

“Just coming in with a lot of focus,” Cowles said. “They have some good arms, we have good arms, so it’s going to be a good one.”

Hitters to know

Sophomore infielder Jimmy Obertop has been tremendous at the plate for the Wolverines. Obertop leads the team in slugging percentage (.649), RBI’s (14) and home runs (6). Tied for the most at-bats on the team, Obertop is a serious threat every time he steps up to the plate, one that the Terps pitching staff is going to need to pay close attention to.

Catcher Christian Molfetta is another threat every time he steps into the batter’s box. The fifth-year senior leads the team in hits with 18 and has a .316 batting average. Molfetta has recorded a hit in the last six games and eight out of the last nine he’s played in. Michigan has strong bats up and down its roster, but Molfetta and Obertop have been especially hot as of late.

Strength

The bullpen. Michigan’s bullpen has shown up in big spots to start the season, leading them to a fast start a quarter way through the season. The Wolverine bullpen has posted a 5-2 combined record and has thrown 65 strikeouts in 52.1 innings pitched. Joe Pace and Jack White are the main guys to come to relief for the Wolverines, with Willie Weiss often finishing the job as closer. Weiss has thrown 11 strikeouts in 6.1 innings.

Weakness

None. It’s hard to find a weakness on this Michigan team as they have one of the best rosters in the conference from top to bottom. Despite losing significant pieces from the 2019 NCAA runner-up team to professional baseball, Michigan has not missed a beat. They have solid starting pitchers to go along with depth in the bullpen. Michigan also has a deep-hitting rotation, making them one of the best teams in the conference.

“Against a team like Michigan, you’ve just got to line up and play good baseball,” Vaughn said.

Northwestern Wildcats (9-5)

Head coach Spencer Allen has turned a dormant program into a solid contender in the Big Ten over the course of his six year tenure. He brought the Wildcats to the Big Ten Tournament championship game in 2017, the first time the program had reached the conference tournament final since 1984. Allen’s squad has only gotten better over time, as three of the skipper’s players (shortstop Jack Dunn, infielder Alex Erro, and infielder Shawn Goosenberg) were all named as All-Big Ten selections in college baseball’s last full season. Now, Allen has his team competing with the best of the best atop the conference.

Most recently, the Wildcats won three games in a row before losing to Minnesota and Illinois. However, in the two days following their first matchup with the Illini, Northwestern took on Illinois twice morning winning both of those games heading into their matchup with the Terps.

Pitchers to know

Junior right-hander Mike Doherty will take the mound for the Wildcats in game one and has been Allen’s most dependable starter thus far. The Sandwich, Massachusetts native is pitching to a conference-ninth 3.20 ERA over four starts, scattering nine earned runs across 25.1 innings and brandishing a solid 1.14 WHIP. Doherty has proven to be potent against solid offenses as well, tossing quality outings against two of the conference’s best hitting teams in Michigan State and Illinois.

Sophomore right-hander Reed Smith has been Northwestern’s best reliever through the first third of the season. Through ten innings pitched, Smith has allowed just two earned runs while striking out ten and is holding opposing batters to a .200 batting average. Smith has displayed tremendous control as well, only conceding two walks over the course of the season.

Hitters to know

Junior infielder Shawn Goosenberg leads the Wildcats in only one offensive category: stolen bases. However, the Encino, Ca. native comes into this weekend red hot at the plate. He took home last week’s Big Ten Player of the Week award for his efforts against Illinois, batting .563 with six extra base hits and improving his season OPS to 1.172. Maryland’s pitchers will have to work hard to stop Goosenberg’s hot streak in its tracks.

“What they’re doing offensively is pretty impressive,” Vaughn said. “There have some guys that can thump the baseball. I remember Goosenberg from a couple of years ago that guy can really really hit. They do a good job.”

Junior first baseman Anthony Carlaco has been one of a few consistently dangerous hitters in the Northwestern lineup. He leads the team in hits (26), total bases (50), and slugging percentage (.847), and is reaching base at a .507 clip. Coming off of a 12-16 weekend against Illinois, Carlaco will look to pose problems for the Terps from the middle of the Wildcat lineup.

Strength

Hitting. The Wildcats lead the league in team average (.304), doubles (33), home runs (29), and slugging percentage (.554). Their batting order boasts seven hitters hitting above .250, and eight Northeastern hitters have tallied at least one home run this season. They lead essentially every major offensive statistical category and will be a handful for the Maryland staff.

“We really need to limit free bases,” Vaughn said. “Obviously with the way Northwestern’s swinging the bat right now, free bases turn into crooked innings so we’ve got to do a really good job of limiting that.”

Weakness

Overall pitching performance. The Wildcats have yet to solidify a pitching staff that has posted a conference-eighth 5.45 ERA over 119 innings. The top two starter and bullpen options have been solid for Allen’s squad, but this team simply lacks the depth to consistently hold opposing lineups down and has relied heavily on its offense to carry the team to victory.

Three things to watch

1. Will Maryland build on its momentum it picked up in last weekend’s finale? The Terps dropped the first three games of their split series against Iowa and Ohio State but were able to grab a come-from-behind win in Monday’s game, in what was arguably Maryland’s most complete game of the season. That momentum will be an important factor in the Terps’ biggest weekend of the season so far.

2. How will Randy Bednar play as he is starting to heat up? While shortstop Benjamin Cowles still leads the team in most statistical categories, some of the Terps have started to catch up to him. Most notably is senior right fielder Randy Bednar, who has hit safely in his last eight games and has recorded multi-hit games in seven of his last eight. Leading the team with 21 hits on the season, expect Bednar to try to continue his hot hitting this weekend.

3. How telling will Maryland’s play be against two great teams? This will be the Terps’ first chance to play a top-four team in the conference, and they’ll get a double dose in Michigan and Northwestern. This weekend’s series will be important for Maryland to prove they are a better team than their record shows, and that they deserve to contend for an NCAA Tournament bid as they were predicted to before the season.