Feature photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.
When third baseman AJ Lee stole second base Sunday afternoon, the play didn’t impact the game much, a 4-0 win over Bryant. Maryland had already scored three runs in that fourth inning, which would end just pitches later with Lee stuck on second.
But Lee’s theft was a milestone, even a symbol of change for the Terrapins offense: it was the Terps’ 29th stolen base in 14 games, already besting the 28 the team stole in 57 games in 2016.
The coaching staff saw the players new to Maryland’s starting lineup in 2017 possessed different skillsets from their 2016 counterparts and decided to capitalize on their fleet feet. They’ve gone from averaging a stolen base once every two games to almost two and half per game.
Center fielder Zach Jancarski said third base coach Rob Vaughn is constantly reminding the team about “not being afraid to crash and burn.” He added that this year’s team has done a good job of staying aggressive on the basepaths and “pushing the envelope at all times.”
Jancarski played in 46 games last year, but only started in 28 of them, giving him time to steal five bases. The junior has been at the top of the batting order in every game so far and has successfully stolen a team-leading six times in 2017.
While Maryland has received plenty of steals from the speedy Jancarski, it’s also collecting bags from players who aren’t as fast due to the new emphasis on running.
“Stealing second’s a little bit tougher because you need more natural speed to do that, but as far as stealing third base, you don’t really have to be a burner to do that,” Jancarski said. “So we really emphasize that.”
Jancarski and first baseman Brandon Gum both swiped third in Maryland’s second game Sunday, an afternoon that saw the Terps steal 10 bases. Gum and infielder Will Watson, both transfer students new to the team, have stolen five and four bases, respectively.
Knowing Maryland can swipe any extra base at any time has to get into the head of the pitcher, Jancarski said.
“It’s terrifying I feel like for other opponents,” he said. “Because if you look at other teams, normally they have two or three guys that have a majority of their stolen bases, and then you can kind of work around that because you know they’re on base.”
Pitchers might know to give Jancarski a second look when he takes his lead off first, but there are five other Terrapins with four or more steals. That’s a lot of runners for a pitcher to keep track of and can make pitching with runners on base more stressful.
But what creates tension for a pitcher can generate pleasure for an offense.
“It’s a really fun lineup to be a part of and it’s a nightmare I think for opposing teams, coaching staffs and pitchers because you don’t know when we’re gonna take that base—and it’s coming,” Jancarski said. “We play with our hair on fire. That’s the way it is, and it’s awesome.”
Maryland will run into an interesting challenge Tuesday as it heads to Chapel to Hill to play North Carolina. The 12-4 Tar Heels have granted nine steals on 15 attempts; that’s the fourth-lowest stolen base total and success percentage (.600) allowed in the ACC.
Stealing successfully on 82.5 percent of its 40 attempts, Maryland will provide a test for North Carolina freshman starter Tyler Baum, should he let the Terps get on base. Only nine batters have reached in 10.2 innings against Baum and no one has scored against him.
Cody Roberts is the catcher with the most starts for the Tar Heels, but he’s caught just two of nine base stealers. Last year, when North Carolina gave up 17 steals the whole year, Roberts nabbed 13 of 27 running on him.
Backup Brandon Martorano has caught four of six, but starting him sacrifices offense—he’s batting .083, a 2-for-24 start to 2017.
Facing the North Carolina lineup shouldn’t be easy for Maryland starter Hunter Parsons. The Tar Heels have hit for the same average as the Terrapins (.279) with a higher slugging percentage (.419).
Parsons was hit hard in his first start of the season last week, giving up six earned runs in 1.2 innings against William and Mary. Opposing batters have hit .333 off the sophomore right-hander.
The game is set for 4 p.m. Tuesday, with the Terps looking for their ninth-straight win.