Maryland baseball to kick off season with challenging weekend

Feature photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.

The No. 22 Maryland baseball team opens its 2017 season playing No. 12 Louisville, Ball State and Alabama in the Clearwater Tournament, where they are the lone team that did not win its division in 2016.

Even with the lack of hardware last year, the talented Maryland pitching staff is a reason for optimism entering 2017 and should allow the Terps to hold their own in most series. Though they lost ace Mike Shawaryn, the Terps still possess a number of weapons to send to the mound.

“It’s probably one of the deeper pitching staffs we’ve had, which is kind of a weird thing to say having we lost Shawaryn, who is the most successful pitcher in the program’s history,” head coach John Szefc said. “But being able to bring back two starters who had more starts than walks last year is a rare thing.”

The Terps will send junior right-handers Brian Shaffer and Taylor Bloom to the mound this Friday and Saturday, respectively. Both earned third-team All-Big Ten honors last season and walked a total of 22 batters in 29 starts between them. Bloom tossed a conference-best five complete games with a 2.46 ERA, a top-four mark in the Big Ten.

Strong pitching will be especially important against powerhouse Louisville, owner of a 50-14 record and Super Regional appearance in the NCAA Tournament last year. The Cardinals belted 64 home runs in 64 games last year while sporting a .322 average.

Brendan McKay is someone to watch for Louisville. The 2016 John Olerud two-way player of the year hit .333 and slugged .513 when he wasn’t busy racking up 128 strikeouts pitching. McKay will not be the starting pitcher against Maryland, meaning the Terrapins will only have to worry about his bat.

Though perhaps he was their most versatile player, McKay was just one of many weapons for the Cardinals. Louisville won 40 or more games for the ninth time in 10 years. By comparison, coach John Szefc led the Terrapins to consecutive 40 win seasons and NCAA Tournament Super Regional appearances in 2014 and 2015. No coach in Maryland history matches either of those accomplishments.

The teams have obvious differences in their history and pedigree, but none of that matters over the course of one baseball game. With enough motivation and team experience to bounce back from their 30-27 2016 season, Maryland could topple Louisville and start their season in style.

Maryland’s other weekend opponents, while a step down from Louisville, are both respectable opponents to be reckoned with. Ball State went 32-26 and won their division in the Mid-American Conference. Their top power hitter, Alex Call, was drafted by the Chicago White Sox, but catcher Caleb Stayton (and his .377 average and 11 home runs) remains in the lineup.

Alabama State went 38-17 and put together a perfect 24-0 record in conference play. They went on to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference and are favored to win their division by conference coaches again this year.

Hornets outfielder Carlos Ocasio slashed .317/.417/.580 with 12 homers and 19 stolen bases. Offensively, he was the total package for the Hornets and was recognized with the SWAC player of the year award. He’s been named to the all-conference preseason first team.

McKay, Stayton and Ocasio are just a sampling of the talented hitters who will step into the box against the Terrapins this weekend. Shutting them down, be it at the hands of Shaffer, Bloom, Hunter Parsons or the rest of the staff, is an obvious key to a successful opening weekend.

Whether they are able to complete this weekend will provide something of a barometer moving forward for this Terps team.

“After the first two weekends, we’re gonna know where we stand whether we’re gonna have a good year or bad year,” shortstop Kevin Smith said. “And that’s not saying if we struggle a bit we can’t pick it back up. We’re gonna know right away where we stand.”

Smith added that the competition will also provide some fuel for the team to play with.

“There’s a motivation for guys when you have games in the beginning that some guys aren’t expecting you to win,” Smith said.

Maryland kicks off the season against Ball State at 7 p.m., followed by Louisville on Saturday at 6 p.m. and Alabama State on Sunday at 10 a.m.

Edited by Austin Kleber.

Connor Mount

Connor Mount

Senior Staff Writer at The Left Bench
Connor Mount is an analytics enthusiast, which is polite for "sports nerd." Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, Class of 2017.
Connor Mount
About Connor Mount 164 Articles
Connor Mount is an analytics enthusiast, which is polite for "sports nerd." Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland, Class of 2017.