Maryland baseball lost its series opener at UCF last month. Jason Savacool allowed a pair of earned runs in six innings, and Luke Shliger homered in the 4-2 defeat. After the Terps took the following two games, the loss became insignificant.
But Rob Vaughn felt that night marked a key turning point in his team’s season. Despite falling, the coach witnessed his players exude a confidence and approach he had yet to see.
That March 24 loss was the Terps’ ninth of the season, a mark they didn’t reach until April 30 a season ago.
Maryland has not lost a series since, including victories over the two teams directly behind it in the Big Ten preseason poll. It took two of three games at Iowa, a team Vaughn lamented the hardest in the conference to play at the time, then returned home to win a pair against Rutgers.
The Terps won the Big Ten for the first time ever last year. Overcoming a rocky opening to rebound with a winning start to their Big Ten slate, they’ve again solidified themselves as the conference’s premier squad.
“I told our players after the game ,‘That’s it. We play that way, we win,’” Vaughn said. “It was one of the first times I literally felt like we were gonna score every inning … You’re having tough at bats. It’s 27 really, really tough outs … I felt like I saw it start [then].”
Pitching struggles were common in the Terps’ 4-7 start. They dropped the final two games at Ole Miss in embarrassing fashion, allowing five runs in the eighth inning to let Game 2 slip away and losing on a 10-run rule in the series finale. A week later, they left the Cambria College Classic winless, losing again to the Rebels and getting walked off by Vanderbilt.
Maryland’s team ERA through 32 games is 5.67. Only three pitchers with more than 10 innings sport ERAs below five. The staff has allowed twice as many home runs through 32 games than it did last year, 52 this season to 26 a year ago.
Those shortcomings haven’t been completely erased, but Terps pitchers dispelled the notion that they aren’t capable against the Scarlet Knights. They got longer outings from starters, allowing relievers to go with more rest.
Maryland fought back from an uncharacteristically poor Savacool start in the first of three battles with the Hawkeyes, winning 10-9 courtesy of four home runs.
The offensive turnaround has been led by Nick Lorusso and his 31-game hit streak. His 13 home runs lead a power surge on track to break the program record set only a year ago.
Maryland’s slugged 60 home runs so far this season, up from 51 through the same number of games last season. It’s allowed the Terps to find victories despite subpar pitching.
“It’s a product of having a good plan, swinging at the right pitches,” Matt Shaw said. “If we keep doing that, I think we’re gonna hit a lot more home runs.”
Maryland leaned on Savacool against Rutgers, throwing a career high 118 pitches in a 6-4 victory. Nick Dean followed Savacool’s performance in the following game by throwing more than 100 pitches and allowing two runs across six innings.
A mental reset sparked Dean’s comeback, he said. Mechanical inconsistencies mired his six nonconference starts, which were worsened by a distracted mind. The senior right hander worked with pitching coach Mike Morrison to clear his head.
In his two starts since Dean’s changes, he’s totaled 11 innings and nine strikeouts to two earned runs.
“It wasn’t more of a physical thing, it was more of a mental thing,” Dean said. “Just focusing on my breath and clearing my mind … was the biggest thing.”
Inserting Kyle McCoy into the weekend rotation is a move that’s proved fruitful. The left hander dazzled in his first quality start, tossing eight shutout innings against the Knights, and has provided stability on Sundays.
The turnaround has come without several key pieces. Designated hitter Ian Petrutz missed five games, including all of the Rutgers series, with an eye injury. Outfielder Matt Woods suffered a concussion against William & Mary, missed the next four games and has yet to return.
McCoy got drilled by a line drive back to the mound and exited the series finale against the Scarlet Knights and will miss at least his next start. His absence will test the pitching staff’s depth.
Consistency still eludes Maryland, despite other signs trending in the right direction. The bullpen’s ups and downs have cost it several games and the Terps’ lineup can go on destructive cold streaks.
The timing of their turnaround came at an ideal point. Maryland’s first two Big Ten opponents are likely the best it’ll face all season. Having already passed those tests, the Terps proved they still reside at the top of the conference.