Midway through a shortened yet tumultuous season, Maryland baseball has seen it all.
From a 0-3 start the season to a double-digit triumph over a ranked Michigan squad, coach Rob Vaughn’s group has faced adversity and success.
None of it has happened the way it was supposed to. Many new contributors have emerged, while older faces have taken on different roles.
After a stellar COVID-19-shortened 2020, Max Costes hasn’t been the same at the plate. Though he’s been productive — he leads Terps’ starters with a .465 on-base percentage — the junior hasn’t slugged the ball quite the same. The D1Baseball.com Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year hasn’t hit a home run and has seen his slugging percentage tail off from last season.
That may be due to the easier nonconference schedule the junior faced last year — one that ranked 123rd in the country. Maryland’s all-conference schedule ranks 80th nationally this season.
Costes also experienced a long layoff, suffering a wrist injury that kept him out of several games early in the campaign. Nevertheless, Maryland has seen a new batter step up and take the mantle of its power threat: Ben Cowles.
Starting with a five-homer outburst against Rutgers, Cowles has broken out at the plate.
“He’s put his heart and soul into improving his game,” Vaughn said. “He’s not trying to do too much, he’s consistently on time with different pitches, he’s competing with two strikes … really proud of Ben.”
While he’s slowed his pace since then, Cowles still is tied for the Big Ten lead in home runs and paces the conference in RBIs. He’s far from the only Terp to make an impression at the plate.
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Freshmen Matt Shaw and Luke Shliger have also stepped up in the batter’s box. The pair have combined for 17 RBIs, carving out an important role in a roster full of upperclassmen.
On the mound, Sean Burke — the Perfect Game Preseason Big Ten Pitcher of the Year — has turned in solid outing after solid outing. The redshirt sophomore is third in the conference in strikeouts and routinely flaunts a 95-plus mile per hour fastball — faster than what most of Maryland’s staff can usually muster.
But he’s struggled with consistency. Burke also ranks in the top third of the conference in walks and the bottom third in ERA. Those stats don’t compute when Burke is at his best, but it’s what he has produced this season.
Instead, another underclassman surprise has taken over. Jason Savacool leads the Terps pitchers in wins, and nearly every time he’s been on the mound, the freshman has performed admirably. Most notably, he’s gone the distance in two games this season, more than any other pitcher in the Big Ten.
“Jason is going to win an absurd amount of games in a Maryland uniform,” Vaughn said.
Savacool is another example of a player that’s made an impact this season despite not having the preseason expectations match their performance.
While the team as a whole has underperformed its expected record at 10-12, there’s more to its story. Of those 12 losses, five were by one run. The Terps are close to being a winning team, but they’re not quite there yet.
Other Big Ten coaches — including Nebraska coach Will Bolt — have praised Maryland as having one of the better rosters in the Big Ten. To elevate its play and spot in the conference standings, the Terps must live up to those expectations.
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For Vaughn, that starts on the field. Maryland ranks second in errors and has the third-worst fielding percentage in the Big Ten.
“We have way too many errors in our infield right now, that’s an area that we just have to get better,” Vaughn said. “They’re good enough athletes, we shouldn’t have that issue.”
The Terps hope to undergo a transformation at the plate, as well. They are looking to spread out their contributions and zone in on the “pack” mentality that Vaughn has preached for the majority of the season.
“[Coach Vaughn] calls the offense the pack. In a wolf pack, there’s no one person that is solely doing anything,” Costes said. “All of us are working toward the same goal.”
When that happens, and multiple hitters can lay the law down against pitchers, Maryland has seen strong results. Its 17-7 upset of Michigan, 19-10 shellacking of Penn State and 13-8 victory over Rutgers exemplify what happens when Vaughn’s squad gets multiple hitters to succeed at the plate and not just have stars emerge.
When the train is going, it is hard to stop. And with the Big Ten tournament absent for 2021, the Terps will need to rack up wins to climb the standings in the latter half of their schedule. If it doesn’t, Maryland won’t get a shot at the NCAA tournament — a place it hasn’t been to since 2017.
And Vaughn believes the Terps have the roster to get themselves there.
“This team could go 20-2, it wouldn’t shock me one bit,” Vaughn said. “We just have to do [the little things] at a higher and more consistent level.”