Nick Dean took the mound in Maryland baseball’s second game of the season at USF with something to prove.

The senior struggled down the stretch of the 2022 season as he navigated a forearm injury and was eventually removed from the No. 1 spot in the rotation, falling well short of the preseason Big Ten Pitcher of the Year recognition he received last year.

But Dean logged one of the best starts of his career in his season debut Saturday. The Bulls, who pounced on Jason Savacool the day prior, couldn’t figure Dean out.

The right hander pitched six scoreless innings and nearly 100 pitches before he was pulled. When he left the mound for the final time, only three USF players had reached base safely.

“He was elite,” coach Rob Vaughn said.

Dean’s fastball velocity had risen into the mid-90s in the preseason, Vaughn said, up a few miles per hour from previous seasons. The bump came due to a detailed training program coming off of last year’s injury, the pitcher said in a preseason interview.

The senior leaned on his heater frequently in Saturday’s start, even more than he had in seasons past. USF struggled to catch up to the heater, and Dean’s pinpoint command allowed him to use the pitch even when behind in the count.

[Jason Savacool falters as No. 13 Maryland baseball loses season opener to USF, 8-7]

Dean completed his arsenal with a changeup and curveball, both of which proved even more effective when paired with the fastball. Swings and misses became regular sights when he chose to use the secondary pitches, particularly in two-strike counts.

“Nick Dean’s changeup is elite,” Vaughn said. “It’s always been very elite … When that fastball’s 92, 94 [miles per hour] like it was today, that changeup gets even better.”

The second and third frames highlighted the effectiveness of those secondary pitches. Dean struck out the side in both innings, putting three batters away as they stared down a breaking ball that dropped in the zone or watched a changeup go by.

“That’s what makes Nick tough, he has enough [velocity] to beat you with the heater … if you’re gonna try to make an early decision the changeup is good enough, and he can command both breaking balls,” Vaughn said. “He was masterful.”

Dean racked up eight punchouts, one shy of his career high and his most in a single start since last May against Rutgers. Saturday also marked his first start of six or more scoreless innings since last February at Campbell, nearly a full year ago.

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Maryland will benefit tremendously if Dean continues to dominate in the Saturday role. His return to form would solidify the top two spots of the Terps’ weekend rotation and gives them a high-level option in the pivotal second game of a series.

“That’s why you have a guy like Nick Dean on Saturdays,” Vaughn said. “You have one of two options, you’re either looking to win a series … or you’re looking to even that thing up.”

Dean, who struggled mentally and physically in grinding through the back half of last season, worked strenuously over the fall and winter hoping to rebound from the lowest point of his Maryland career.

His hyper-focused training led to added weight, a better fastball and a new mindset.

“[Dean] has a bunch of extra stuff that no one’s seen yet, and they’re going to see it this spring,” catcher Luke Shliger said earlier this month.

Saturday’s start was the pitcher’s first opportunity to showcase the products of his work. It resulted in his best start in a year and showed that he may have fully recaptured what made him elite in previous seasons.