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Maryland baseball vs Illinois preview

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The Terps look to ride their historic winning streak into a three game series against the Fighting Illini.

Photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics

Maryland baseball will ride the momentum from its program-best six-game conference win streak into Champaign, Illinois this weekend for a three-game set against the Fighting Illini.

At a season-best 19-13, the Terps’ strongest asset of late has been their pitching. Head coach Rob Vaughn’s stable surrendered just ten total runs over the course of last weekend’s three-game series against Minnesota.

Right-handed starter Nick Dean continues to impress on the mound and will be Friday night’s starter this weekend. Lights out performances from a youthful back end of the bullpen have also played a key role in Maryland’s winning ways.

Shortstop Benjamin Cowles has continued his power-filled 2021 campaign and is now up to a conference-leading 13 homers and league-second 39 RBI on the year. Freshman Matt Shaw has taken the team lead in batting average, hitting .331 on the year and riding a seven-game hit streak.

“The boys are close, man. They’re competing really, really hard,” Vaughn said. “I think you got 37 guys that don't really care about individual stuff right now. They don't care about the Draft, don’t care about stats, they don’t care about conference awards. They don’t care anything about that except for winning and continuing to play.”

First pitch of Friday’s series opener will be at 7 pm EST. Game two will start at 5 pm on Saturday, and Sunday’s finale will start at noon. All games can be streamed on BTN Plus.

Illinois Fighting Illini (15-16)

Head coach Dan Hartleb is in his 16th season at the helm for Illinois, owning a 454-327-1 record in that span. The team has had some of its most successful years under Hartleb, who was named the 2010s Big Ten Head Coach of the decade by D1Baseball.com. The Fighting Illini were selected to four NCAA regionals in that decade, headlined by a 2015 season in which they hosted both a Regional and Super Regional as the No. 6 national seed. Hartleb is no stranger to success and postseason runs and will be sure to pose a threat to the Terps’ winning streak.

This season, the Illini currently sit in the middle of the standings and most recently split a series 2-2 with Michigan who sits toward the top of the conference.

Pitchers to know

Sophomore righty Andrew Hoffman will lead the team’s starting rotation this weekend. The youngster boasts a 3.96 ERA over 36.1 innings of work and has just one win over seven starts. He’s flashed strikeout stuff, punching out 39 opposing batters on the season, but was tagged for four runs over 5 and a third innings last weekend in his start against Michigan.

Although his stats don’t land him among the top starters in the Big Ten, Vaughn is still wary of just how skilled Illinois’ ace is.

“I saw Hoffman throw earlier in the year when we were in down South Carolina. The guy’s got some funk to him, it's pretty good stuff, it’s a really good slider ... numbers can get inflated,” Vaughn said.

Sophomore left-hander Nathan Lavender is also likely to make a start this weekend. His 4.68 ERA over 42.1 innings of work doesn’t jump off the page, but his 57 strikeouts do. He will come into this weekend’s start with a 5.18 strikeout to walk ratio and has only walked 11 batters on the year as well. Look for a bounceback showing from Lavender, who was shelled for six runs in three and a third innings last weekend against the Wolverines.

Freshman righty Alex Vera has been the most impressive reliever thus far for Hartleb’s squad. He’s given up just four earned runs on the season, punching out eight batters over 9.2 innings of work. His ability to control the zone will be a theme to watch, however; the freshman has a 1.63 WHIP on the year.

Hitters to know

Freshman infielder Justin Janas is the best pure hitter in a stacked top of the order for Illinois. He’s batting a league-best .379 coming into this weekend’s series with 20 RBI and just 13 strikeouts. With a conference-second .488 on-base percentage, Janas will be an important out to make before the heart of the Illini order comes to the plate.

Senior infielder Jackson Raper is the biggest all-around threat in this Illinois lineup. He leads the team in slugging (.679), OPS (1.116), and home runs (10), but is also batting .330 and is reaching base at a .437 clip. Raper is top ten in the Big Ten in just about every major statistical category and will be difficult for any pitcher on Maryland’s squad to get out consistently.

Sophomore infielder Branden Comia is an on-base machine. He’s batting .361 on the year, reaching base .500 clip with 19 walks and a team-best 39 hits. Comia can supply some power as well, slugging .509 with ten extra-base hits on the season. The youngster has also driven in 23 runs from the top of the order.

Strength

All-out offense. The Fighting Illini lead the Big Ten in batting average in hits and are top three in RBI and total bases after a slow start to the season. They scored 30 runs over four games last weekend against a very good Michigan team and will be difficult to hold down for Maryland's pitchers, regardless of how in-form Vaughn’s staff may be.

“The one thing I’m very convinced on is they can really hit,” Vaughn said. “Comia’s a really good player, Raper’s a really good player ... they’ve got some offense, man. They’re going to score runs.”

Weakness

Pitching, overall. While their offense leads the league in a handful of categories, Illinois’ pitching has been a different story. Hartleb’s staff is second to last in the Big Ten in ERA (7.27), and batting average against (.296), and is last in home runs allowed (60). The team has just two arms pitching below the 4.00 ERA mark, with most of their bullpen arms sitting between 6.00 and 10.00 runs per nine innings. With an offense as dangerous as the Terps’, this weekend’s games may come down to a matchup of offensive firepower.

Three things to watch

1. Maryland is as hot as it's been all season. The Terps are playing their best baseball coming into this weekend, and have fought into a position to play for an NCAA Tournament bid. Thanks to a 9-1 stretch in their last ten, they now sit in a tie for fourth in the conference and are just four games out of the top spot in the Big Ten. With the top three teams all playing each other in the coming weekends, a successful series for Maryland could catapult them firmly into playoff contention.

2. The Terps have received key contributions from their young players. Freshman infielder Matt Shaw, arguably the most prominent youngster on the roster, didn’t have the finest start to his first collegiate baseball campaign but has really dialed it up in the last handful of weekends. He’s 15-31 over his last seven games and has been a major part of Maryland's offense over the course of their recent stellar play.

He’s been part of an impressive young core for the Terps, which stepped in and played very well for Maryland last weekend.

“It’s kind of been a fill-in thing, wherever I’m needed,” sophomore Matt Orlando said on how his ability to play multiple positions has allowed him to help the team. “Our infield is so versatile. We got guys playing different positions. Our outfielders, with the exception of [Chris Alleyne], we have our right fielders and left fielders going back and forth. It’s more of a testament to how versatile our team has been as a whole.”

3. Maryland’s bullpen was stellar last weekend against the Golden Gophers. After Sean Burke’s abbreviated outing and Logan Ott’s shaky relief appearance, David Falco, Ryan Ramsey, Connor Staine, and Sam Bello combined for 4.1 innings of shutout, three-hit baseball to stifle Minnesota’s comeback efforts. It was the cap to a weekend in which the Golden Gophers scored just two runs after the fifth inning, showing how gritty the back end of Maryland’s bullpen has become.

“We’ve had a little bit of a change in the mindset in the bullpen,” Falco said. “We’re not really as worried about the hitters, [we’re] just worried about pitching to our strengths and it’s been working for us lately.”