Maryland baseball will travel far from home for a weekend series against LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but the lengthy trip will bring two Terps almost 1,000 miles closer to their old stomping grounds.
Louisiana-bred outfielders Will Watson and Madison Nickens grew up a few hours from each other and won the 2015 NCAA junior college national championship together at LSU-Eunice.
Now, as Terps, the duo will try to steal a series from the No. 5 Tigers.
Family, friends and even former teammates donning purple and gold will be present at Alex Box Stadium, but it will be business as usual for the pair.
“It’s really exciting, but it’s really just another three-game series that we need to win,” Nickens said. “I’m trying to [keep] tunnel vision and just focus on doing everything I can to help the team win.”
Maryland looks to redeem themselves after going 1-2 in the Clearwater Tournament last weekend, dropping games to Ball State and No. 10 Louisville.
“Everybody will forget about that if we go there this weekend and take the series,” Watson said. “We have a big challenge in front of us but with the talent we have … I think anything’s possible.”
After committing six errors in the tournament, Szefc said he wants to see a more disciplined defense and for his pitchers to get ahead in counts in Baton Rouge.
“We’re going to try to put what we think is our best defensive matchup on the field at any given time in any given game,” Szefc said. “You have to pitch and play clean defense in order to be in the game against the kind of schedule we play.”
To pitch well, the Terps will need to rebound off a rough weekend that saw the bullpen struggle.
In contrast, the Tigers offense only needs to stay the course. They are batting .340 and have scored 41 runs in just five games.
Meanwhile, Terps relievers allowed 15 of the 25 runs scored last weekend.
“Regardless of whether or not a guy had a lot of success, we have to keep running our guys out there,” Szefc said. “We have to get every one of those guys confident and feeling good about themselves. With some guys, it’s going to take three outings, with some it may take four.”
This could be a challenge for the Terps, who are visiting a stadium that seats over 10,000 fans. LSU has led the nation in attendance for 21 consecutive years.
“It’s a very distracting atmosphere if you’re a visiting player there,” head coach John Szefc said. “You have to have guys with strong personalities and strong wills that can go in there and combat that.”
Szefc hopes to continue the offensive rhythm the Terps showed in Clearwater. They scored 19 runs and showed aggression on the basepaths, stealing eight bags in 11 tries. Last year, it took Maryland 20 games to steal eight bases.
“Even if you’re not running, if you’re grabbing [the pitcher’s] attention and [taking] it off the hitter, his pitches will be poorer pitches and it’s obviously going to give the hitter a lot better pitches to work with,” Szefc said.
LSU returns eight of nine starters from last year’s lineup and two of their starting pitchers from last year. Four returning players were drafted in the 2016 MLB draft.
Junior right-hander Alex Lange, an All-American as a freshman, will face off against junior Brian Shaffer on the mound on Friday. Lange shut out Army for five innings last weekend, while Shaffer struck out six, ceding one run on three hits in five innings against Ball State.
On Saturday, junior Taylor Bloom will square off against senior left-hander Jared Poche’ on Saturday. Poche’ tossed a seven-inning no-hitter against Army. Bloom looks to bounce back from a bumpy three innings in which he allowed six runs (three earned) on six hits to Louisville.
Freshmen Tyler Blohm and Eric Walker will duel on Sunday. Both pitchers earned their first collegiate wins in their debuts. Blohm gave up three runs in five innings against Alabama State and Walker fanned six in five innings, letting up two runs to Air Force.
Nickens said that LSU’s talented pitching staff won’t change the offense’s approach.
“We’re just gonna do what we did [last] weekend,” he said. “We lost a tough game to Louisville, but you look at that, we scored seven runs on a really good pitching staff.”
The Terps scored four runs on Louisville’s Kade McClure, who was named an All-American by Perfect Game after registering a 2.54 ERA last season.
“We got some of their best guys so we’re going to do what we do and we’re gonna score runs,” Nickens said.
Edited by Connor Mount.
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