As the postseason rapidly approaches, Madison Nickens and the Maryland coaching staff are making changes to find a way to spark the senior left fielder’s bat.
Coach John Szefc moved Nickens down to the nine-spot in the order Saturday against Illinois, giving Nickens some lineup protection with leadoff man Zach Jancarski hitting behind him. Nickens, tinkering with the little things in the penultimate week of the regular season, changed his walkup music Tuesday.
Whether by cause or coincidence, Nickens displayed his offensive versatility with a 2-for-3 performance in a win over UMBC on Tuesday. He led off the four-run sixth-inning rally by choking up on the bat and lining a two-strike pitch to left for an opposite-field single. In the next inning, he pulled a double off the top of the wall.
In his first year with the Terrapins after transferring from LSU-Eunice, Nickens hit .260 last year with a .362 on-base percentage and eight home runs. This season, those numbers are down: he’s got a .233 batting average, a .321 on-base percentage and five home runs.
Nickens offers a broad skill set, with 12 extra base hits and 12 stolen bases this year. He has seven extra base knocks in his last 11 games. However, he’s struggled to make consistent contact, lowering his average.
Meanwhile, third baseman AJ Lee has batted .313 with six home runs and 26 RBIs while operating mostly from the final spot in the order. As coaches have inserted Nickens in that last slot, Lee has moved up to sixth the last four games.
The sixth spot has been one of the few holes in the Terrapins lineup, with players batting .237 with a .343 on-base percentage in that spot. Maryland hits .276 as a team with a .379 on-base percentage.
Nickens has played the most games in that slot, though Will Watson, Kevin Smith, Nick Cieri and a few others have played a handful of games there.
In the ninth spot for the time being, Nickens decided to shake up the way he comes to the plate. All season he came to bat giving a shout-out to his home state of Louisiana with Garth Brooks’ “Callin’ Baton Rouge.” When he stepped up Tuesday, Travis Scott’s “Through the Late Night” played over the stadium speakers instead.
“I’m not extremely superstitious, but it’s a change,” Nickens said. “Doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result is insane, so I figured I’d switch something up.”
The entrance didn’t help his first time up, as he struck out looking. But the left-handed hitter shot a single into left field in his second at-bat and later scored the game-tying run.
“Baseball is a confidence thing,” Nickens said. “Any time you’re able to get a good hit like that, wait back on the ball and poke it through the other way, it gives you a little bit of a confidence boost, which is big.”
Nickens has been working on controlling his breathing to keep calm on the field, and the base knock certainly helped him exhale.
“I’ve just been trying to relax. I’m not doing anything major, I just want to relax and honestly have fun,” he said. “I’m getting old. I’m a senior. I know the season’s getting to the postseason. I’m just trying to have as much fun as I can and be loose.”
Maryland made a lineup switch meant to jumpstart an underperforming player earlier this year when Szefc moved second baseman Nick Dunn down into the cleanup position from the two hole.
Coaches thought giving Dunn more opportunities to pick up RBIs would help him, and the numbers show it did.
|Nick Dunn’s numbers by position in batting order|
The lineup change could lead to statistical benefits for Nickens, but Szefc is most concerned with keeping the left fielder’s morale positive.
“Sometimes when he presses, he gets a little bit rough on himself,” Szefc said. “So as a coach, me and Rob [Vaughn] and the other guys, we have to try to stay as positive as we can with him. He’s meant a lot to our team in the two years he’s been here. … You have to hang in there with guys, hang in there through the ups and downs.”
Nickens will try to build on Tuesday’s performance as the Terps play their final conference series of the year this weekend against Northwestern. Maryland (14-7 in Big Ten play) trails Nebraska (12-5-1) for the conference lead, and the Cornhuskers play series with Rutgers and Iowa to end the season.
A sweep of Northwestern coupled with at least two Nebraska losses would give Maryland the Big Ten title.
Szefc said he is making sure no one slacks off as the season heads toward the end.
“Our guys have got to play with a lot of urgency. And not just play but prepare with it,” he said. “Our practice days are really important this week. A lot of guys will get very lax and lazy—some teams will—at the end of the season. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Northwestern (19-27) has struggled on both sides of the ball. Opposing teams have hit twice as many home runs as the Wildcats (38 to 19) and Northwestern pitchers own a collective 5.21 ERA.
Outfielder Joe Hoscheit has been the Wildcats’ most effective hitter, producing a .333/.412/.516 slash line with five home runs and 39 RBIs. He leads the squad in each of those five categories.
Lefty Cooper Wetherbee should start Friday night opposite Maryland’s right-handed ace Brian Shaffer. Wetherbee has a 2.91 ERA, eighth-best in the Big Ten. His Friday night foe leads the conference with a 1.78 ERA.
Game one begins at 2 p.m. in College Park Friday, with 2 p.m. and 1 p.m. starts scheduled for Saturday and Sunday’s games.