Nick Dean was overthinking parts of his game that should be instinctual while he pitched during his six non-conference starts. The senior gave up 22 runs in 28.1 innings in that stretch as he struggled to identify why he wasn’t effective.
A change occurred for him in recent weeks. With the help of coaches and teammates, a mind that was once clouded with detrimental thoughts of anything other than the hitter that stood 60 feet away from him began to clear. Dean’s since started to focus on controlling his breathing, not letting any moment grow too large and taking every second of it in.
It’s allowed him to string consecutive commendable starts for the first time this season. The right hander logged five scoreless innings in his most recent outing. Then he tossed six innings and eclipsed 100 pitches Saturday in Maryland baseball’s 4-3 victory over Rutgers.
“I was thinking about mechanical issues or just things that weren’t really productive,” Dean said. “These last couple weeks, I’ve really been focusing on how I’m feeling and really enjoying myself.”
Dean’s six non-conference starts casted doubt over whether he would be able to bounce back from an injury-riddled 2022. The start to his 2023 wasn’t defined by physical shortcomings, rather mental ones.
Despite those lackluster outings, Rob Vaughn was optimistic his No. 2 starter would perform better in conference play. Dean’s five-inning scoreless start a week ago was closer to what the coach knew was possible, then the senior went deeper against the Scarlet Knights, clearing the hurdles that plagued his outings earlier in the season.
“It’s not easy when you have kind of a tough start to the year,” Vaughn said. “Doubt can creep in, frustration can creep in. That kid just kept working. He just kept getting better, showed up every day with a good attitude. … It’s not good news for other guys when Nick Dean gets going.”
A solo Scarlet Knights home run was the only major blemish on Dean’s two-run outing. He gave up a triple that later scored on a line drive to right field that Jacob Orr failed to corral and likely would have been only a single.
“You just gotta have the mindset ‘I threw it at your barrel there, you got lucky’ and just continuing to have confidence with every pitch and just kinda flush it,” Dean said.
His 105 pitches are the most the pitcher’s thrown all season. The start also marked the first time he finished six innings since February.
The performance kept Maryland’s deficit tight even as its offense sputtered in the early frames. Rutgers (15-15, 1-4 Big Ten) starting pitching has given the Terps trouble throughout the series, holding them to three runs in 9.1 combined innings between the Scarlet Knights’ Friday and Saturday starters.
Maryland (19-11, 4-1 Big Ten) put forth another slow start before an explosive fifth inning. Zach Martin, who entered Saturday with six at bats on the season, led off with a home run to right field that awoke a quiet offense.
The lineup turned over to the top of the order and for the second consecutive game, third baseman Nick Lorusso found a go-ahead home run that put his team on top permanently.
Like Jason Savacool did a day earlier, Dean gave way to a rested bullpen that only had a few innings to cover. Tommy Kane and Nigel Belgrave covered the final frames in Friday’s win, leaving Kenny Lippman and David Falco Jr. available for Saturday.
The four members of the back of the Terps’ bullpen, which Vaughn coined a “four-headed monster,” gave up one run in 5.1 innings and two hits over the two days.
“When we’re not having to tax them too much, you see how effective those guys can be,” Vaughn said.
They’ve rarely had the luxury of pitching with amicable rest this season but got it this weekend with Dean working to move forward from wrestling with damaging thoughts. The formula for how the entire staff must traverse its conference slate is becoming clearer, just like Dean’s mind on the mound.