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Outlook: Coach Vaughn on the pandemic and the future of college baseball

On Wednesday, March 12, within minutes of each other, the NCAA and the Big Ten ended the season for all spring sports, including baseball, due to concerns over the impact of the mounting COVID-19 pandemic.

Head coach Rob Vaughn and the Maryland baseball team left College Park early Wednesday, beginning their journey to Dallas, Texas, ahead of their biggest regular season contest: a weekend series against TCU.

But rather than shuttle the team to practice after the plane landed, Vaughn and his fellow coaches had to gather the group in a hotel conference room and discuss the news that their 2020 season was over before conference play had even started.

In that moment, and now, months later, Vaughn’s message to his team was simple, real and authentic.

“It happened so fast,” Vaughn said. “There are no words. Sometimes I feel like words get int the way in situations like that.”

Vaughn has since told his team not to be “superheroes” and to follow the state-by-state guidelines, listening to health officials. He’s also pushed his players to use their time without baseball to work on themselves and focus on academics.

“Don’t use this to stress about the baseball stuff,” Vaughn said, “use this to better yourself as a person in some way, shape, or form.”

Over two months later, the Terps have been adjusting to a different way of staying connected. Early-on, once the team had all returned home or to their apartments in College Park, the Terps tried an all-team Zoom session, experimenting with different ways to remain in touch and maintain the group’s bonds.

“The reality is, when you get 50 people on a Zoom call it’s a zoo,” Vaughn said. “Nobody’s paying attention, like your eyes just glaze over.”

After that initial video chat, Vaughn and the other coaches have changed their approach. Rather than risk getting “zoomed out,” as Vaughn put it, they’re meeting in smaller, targeted groups based more on personal interests. Shortstop Ben Cowles has been talking with assistant coach Matt Swope about his hitting, while pitcher Sean Burke and pitching coach Corey Muscara are working on Burke’s breaking ball, all via video chat.

More recently Vaughn heard from senior pitchers Tyler Blohm, Elliot Zoellner and Zach Thompson, all of whom will be returning for their final year of eligibility in 2021, a result of the NCAA Division I Council’s ruling that spring sport seniors would receive an extra year of eligibility.

While there remain many unanswered questions, including topics like roster management and how eligibility will be funded, Vaughn is happy to have three veteran arms back on the mound for what he believes will be an exciting season, in part as a result of MLB’s five-round draft.

“You’re going to see the most loaded college baseball around the country that you’ve ever seen,” Vaughn said. “I think across the landscape you’re going to have more high school kids get to [college] and more juniors staying in school…I think the landscape of college baseball one year doing [a five-round draft] is going to drastically change from here on out.”

For Maryland specifically, Vaughn is sticking to his mantra of treating each day as the most important, not making any one day, game or practice more special than the rest.

“It’s just more a sustained thing,” Vaughn said. “It’s great we have returning guys, but can we behave like winners and make decisions like winners for 60 days in a row. It’s not east to do but that’s going to be out biggest challenge [next year] and I’m excited.”

Like so many, Vaughn is taking it day-by-day, valuing the time he’s able to spend with his family and the interactions he’s having with his athletes, even if it is through a screen.

“I’m excited,” Vaughn said. “I don’t even care about the 2021 season, I’m just excited to get back out and take batting practice…try to strike out guys out every day. That’s what I want to do.”

Terps’ Bats Falter in Final Game of Homestand

On a day where the college sports world was shaken by announcements regarding games and championships in the coming weeks, Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium remained a bubble of normalcy as Maryland and James Madison battled out a close-fought midweek game. 

After beating up on opposing pitchers through the first four games of their homestand, the Terps were stymied by the Dukes’ hurlers, as they were shut out through the final eight innings in a 4-2 loss. 

The Terps struck first, scoring twice in the first inning on a single by Maxwell Costes and a Ben Cowles hit by pitch. James Madison struck right back in the top of the second, as back-to-back homers by Fox Semones and Josh Jones put the Dukes up 3-2. JMU added to their lead with a run scored on a wild pitch later in the inning. 

While the score remained fairly low, neither starter reached the fifth inning, as JMU’s Liam McDonnell was lifted after 3 innings and Maryland’s Zach Thompson made it through 4. Thompson allowed just four hits and one walk, but the free pass was costly as the runner came in to score on Semones’ home run. 

Both bullpens kept their opponents off the board and for the most part off the bases. The Dukes mounted a threat in the sixth inning when they drew two walks off reliever Connor Staine. After Staine was relieved by Sam Bello, a wild pitch moved the runners to scoring position with two outs, but Bello punched out DaVonn Griffin to keep the Terps’ deficit at just two. 

After removing their starter, the Dukes turned the ball over to Grayson Jones. The senior right hander shut the Terps down, going three innings, allowing only one hit and fanning two while facing the minimum thanks to a pick-off of Randy Bednar at second base in the fifth. 

The Terps finally threatened in the seventh, when reliever Andrew Weight loaded the bases with two outs for designated hitter Bobby Zmarzlak. After Weight was taken out in favor of Lliam Grubbs, Zmarzlak lined a ball deep into the left field corner, but left fielder Chase DeLauter tracked it down to end the inning. 

The Dukes put together another solid inning in the eighth, using a single, a hit batsman, and a double steal to put runners on second and third with one out against Elliot Zoellner. Zoellner escaped the jam unscathed, sandwiching a walk between a strikeout and a force out that ended the inning. 

After scoring 48 runs in the previous four home games, the Terps’ bats were all but silent on the afternoon, recording just four hits, and going 2-for-14 with runners on base and recorded just one hit after the fifth inning. 

Game Preview: James Madison

Heading into the final tilt of a five-game homestand, The Terrapins are flying high, with blowout wins in each of their last four games. After being swept at Coastal Carolina to finish February play, Maryland has righted the ship in a big way, outscoring opponents 48-18 over its last four games.

Before heading to their spring break road trip in Texas, Maryland will welcome James Madison to Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium to wrap up one of their longest homestands of the season.

While the Terps’ weekend rotation has been solidified, approaching only their third midweek it’s still uncertain whether junior Zach Thompson will get his third midweek start, or whether senior Tyler Blohm may finally make his return to the mound.

Thompson was dominant to start against Delaware, completing a perfect first trip through the order on just 27 pitches. After a long layoff prior to the fourth, Thompson struggled, finishing the afternoon after just 4 ⅓ innings with five runs charged to him. 

Coming off of his junior campaign, in which he went 1-2 in six starts and struggled with injury, Blohm has the potential to make his first start of the season. After throwing over 50 innings in each of his first two years, Blohm was limited to 15 ⅔ innings last season. If he can return to form, the southpaw would provide a big boost to the Terps’ stable of arms, which currently leans heavily on underclassmen. 

While the Terrapins have seen offensive production throughout the lineup, the top of their order has been a force to be reckoned with so far. Chris Alleyne, Randy Bednar, and Maxwell Costes are all batting over .340, with Costes boasting a .439 average and an impressive .627 on-base-percentage to go with four homers and 14 RBI.

Alleyne and Bednar are tied for team lead with eight doubles and Alleyne leads the conference with 18 runs scored, while Bednar is third in the conference with 16 RBI.

Outside of those three atop the order, the Terps’ biggest bat has been shortstop Ben Cowles, who has three home runs and has driven in 13 runs, batting mostly out of the seven-hole. Cowles is currently on a six-game hit streak and a four-game RBI streak, and has two home runs and 10 RBI on the four-game home stand.

James Madison Dukes (8-6, 0-0 CAA)

Last Season

The Dukes finished last season 31-26, but were bounced in just two games in the CAA tournament. James Madison had a 9-13 overall record away from home last season, but that did include a 14-1 win over the Terps in College Park.

This Season

James Madison started the season getting swept by then-No. 16 NC State before rattling off six straight wins. Since then, the Dukes have won two of their last five and will be heading to College Park after playing VMI at home on Tuesday. 

Hitters to Watch

The Dukes’ top run producers on the young season have been a trio of underclassmen. Freshman two-way player Chase DeLauter and sophomore Nick Zona boast identical .383 batting averages and have driven in 13 and 12 runs, respectively. The team’s RBI leader is sophomore Kyle Novak, who has 14 RBI this spring to go along with a .333 average. 

Pitchers to Watch

In two midweek games this season, the Dukes have yet to have a starter go more than five innings. In their first midweek, Justin Showalter went two innings, but has since settled into a weekend starting role. In their second midweek, the Dukes used Liam McDonnell for 4 ⅔ innings in which he fanned seven while allowing five hits and two runs.

With freshman Hunter Entsminger the announced starter for Tuesday’s matchup with VMI, it seems likely that James Madison could turn to McDonnell on Wednesday, as he has only 5 ⅔ innings on the season and has not pitched since his appearance against VMI in February. 

Cool and collected, Burke proves perfect Sunday starter for Terps

Whenever redshirt-freshman Sean Burke takes the mound, Maryland first baseman Maxwell Costes knows the Terps are going to win. And, in fact, Maryland has won all but one of Burke’s four starts so far this season.

“Burke is a baller,” Costes said after the Terps’ 13-3 sweep-clinching win over Bryant Sunday. “Even last week against Coastal Carolina, even though we lost on Sunday, I was like, ‘We about to get us one today.’ Like, whenever he steps on the mound…the whole vibe of the team feels different.”

Burke_RI_front_SUNAfter missing last season while recovering from injury, Burke has proven to be the most dominant arm of Maryland’s pitching staff. With a team-best 1.99 ERA and 35 strikeouts–the most strikeouts by a freshman pitcher in Division I baseball, and the fourth-most strikeouts overall in the Big Ten–Burke’s composure on the mound has shone through even when Maryland’s offense is struggling. 

Against Coastal Carolina, Burke tossed six innings and set Maryland up for a potential comeback, allowing only two runs on three hits and three walks. Behind Burke, the Terps had a chance to prevent a sweep, after the Chanticleers defeated Maryland 16-0 and 10-3 on Friday and Saturday, respectively. 

Though Coastal Carolina ultimately defeated Maryland 3-2, Burke’s performance has time and again proven that he has what it takes to dominate Division I hitters. 

In his four starts Burke has lasted a minimum of five innings per start and struck out a minimum of eight batters. Against Bryant on Sunday, Burke matched his longest start of the season–his six innings against Coastal Carolina–while striking out a season-high 11 batters and allowing a season-low two walks. 

“His composure throughout the game was incredibly impressive,” head coach Rob Vaughn said of Burke’s start on Sunday. “We were dropping fly balls behind him, causing him to throw extra pitches, and they were taking some decent swings, and he didn’t flinch.”

A perfect example of Burke’s composure is his first inning against Bryant. The Bulldogs put their first three batters on base, after a missed fly ball that was later ruled an error, a single, and a double that scored Bryant’s first run of the game. With that, Burke and the Terps were behind 1-0 with no outs and runners on the corners.

But after a quick mound visit from pitching coach Corey Muscara, Burke struck out three consecutive batters to strand those two baserunners, including a three-pitch strikeout to end the half. 

“[Muscara] said that if I could just limit [Bryant] to one more run and get us out [and into the dugout, it’s like 2-0, then out lineup’s going to hit,” Burke said regarding Muscara’s mound visit. “Fortunately I was able to strike out the side there, and then our team’s bats just took care of the rest.”

Coincidentally, it was a start against Bryant two years ago that turned around former Maryland pitcher Hunter Parsons’ junior season and in part resulted in his development into the Terps’ ace. 

While Parsons and Burke are different when it comes to the pitches they toss–Parsons tossed a two-seam cutter more and Burke throws a four-seam curveball–their mindset on the mound is similar, according to catcher Justin Vought. Burke_RI_SUN

“[Burke has] arguably the best stuff on the team,” Vought said. “To have him on Sunday’s, or out there against anybody that we play, we’re extremely confident going out there on Sunday’s with him on the mound. I think you’re going to put him with any Sunday starter in the country and you’re going to give yourself a chance to win, so that’s huge for us.”

A big part of Burke’s success, aside from his obvious pitching ability, is that mentality on the mound. It seems that Burke subscribes to Vaughn’s motto that “everything matters, nothing is special,” meaning that players shouldn’t put their play in-game on a pedestal, because it’s just as important as practice. 

“In the past, and kind of in this preseason, when I struggled a little bit I was trying to do too much and trying to make things way bigger than they were,” Burke said. “Now just having a real simple pinch plan and making adjustments along the way…just overall being real simple and keeping everything to one pitch.” 

Heading into the remainder of the season, Burke’s Sunday starts could play a major role in deciding whether or not the Terps make the Big Ten Tournament for the second year in a row. But at his current pace, Burke’s performance should be the last thing Maryland worries about. 

“When you’ve got a guy like him who, he’s going to hopefully give up [fewer] than three, four runs, give your offense a chance to come through late in the game…that’s huge,” said Vought. “That’s all you want.”

Costes, Burke lead Terps to first series sweep

Maryland scored in double digits on Sunday for the third time in its past four games, taking down the Bryant Bulldogs 13-3 for a series sweep in College Park. 

Unlike the past two days, Bryant got on the board first in the series finale. Maryland allowed the first three Bryant batters to reach base to start the inning, after an error, a single, and a double. With the double the Bulldogs plated their first run of the game, taking the least 1-0.

But Terrapin starter Sean Burke proceeded to strikeout the next three batters to work out of the jam, minimizing the damage. 

Maryland struck back in the bottom of the first on a Maxwell Costes home run to left field, after which Costes chucked the bat toward the home dugout, Tim Anderson-style. A Bobby Zmarzlak walk and Tucker Flint’s ninth hit-by-pitch of the year kept the rally going. (Flint was hit by two more pitches before the day was over).

Catcher Tavan Shahidi then smoked a single to right field to score Zmarzlak and give the Terps the one-run advantage.

“I feel like we have a complete lineup here,” Costes said. “If I don’t [get a hit], somebody else will.”

Bryant tied the game in the top of the second on a sky-high RBI triple just out of the reach of Terps left fielder Flint, but the Bulldogs’ lead didn’t last long. 

Maryland’s offense continued the back-and-forth scoring in the bottom of the inning, putting up a two-spot after capitalizing on Bryant errors and free bases, heading into the third up 4-2, helped by a successful double-steal from Randy Bednar and Costes. 

“When you are playing with the lead you can up your tempo a little bit and try to force guys to make mistakes,” head coach Rob Vaughn said, regarding the double-steal attempt. 

A long ball to right-center field in the top of the third gave Bryant its third run of the day, but Maryland’s defense kept the Bulldogs from tacking on any more, while the Terps’ offense continued to dominate.

Shortstop Ben Cowles continued his hot streak with an RBI-double through the left-center field gap, putting Maryland ahead 5-3 heading to the fourth. The junior finished the day two-for-five with a double and three RBI.

On the mound Burke fully settled down in the fourth inning, with help from catcher Shahidi; after Burke walked the leadoff batter, Shahidi eliminated the baserunner with a successful throw down to second–then Burke struck out the next two batters to face the minimum. 

Burke allowed runners in the fifth and sixth innings but both times the Maryland infield picked him up, turning two nifty double plays to keep his pitch count low enough to finish out the sixth inning with a strikeout. It was his 11th strikeout of the game, the most by any Maryland pitcher this year.

“In the past and this preseason when I struggled a little bit I was trying to do too much,” Burke said. “So now I have a real simple pinch-plan and make adjustments along the way if I need to.”

The Terps added three insurance runs in the fifth inning, plus four runs in the seventh and a run in the eighth; the late-inning scoring was highlighted by another double-steal and a Bryant error to plate Bednar from third base in the seventh.

Sam Bello came in the game for Maryland in the top of the seventh, relieving Burke, who finished with 11 strikeouts over six innings, allowing only two earned runs on five hits and two walks. Bello, who made his first appearance since February 21, pitched a clean seventh and struck out two batters. 

“Burke is a baller, man… whenever he steps on the mound, the whole vibe of the team becomes different,” said Costes on the presence his freshman-year roommate brings to the diamond.

Austin Chavis had an impactful day for the Terps, going three-for-four with a double and two runs. Costes was two-for-two with a homer, double, two walks and three RBI.

Maryland will be back in action on Wednesday in College Park to take on James Madison at 4 p.m.

Dean dominates on the mound with offensive surge over Bryant

Despite allowing at least one runner in each inning of work, Maryland starting pitcher Nick Dean built off his solid start against Coastal Carolina with a gem Saturday against Bryant. The freshman went six scoreless innings, blanking the Bulldogs for only three hits and six strikeouts in the Terps’ 8-3 win. 

Dean’s dominant performance on the mound earned him the W, the first of his career. On the offensive side of the ball, Maryland helped the freshman cruise, starting things early for the second straight day.

Bryant starting pitcher Tyler Schoff continued the Bulldogs’ trend of allowing free bases, walking two batters in the first inning to help the Terps grab an early lead.

Randy Bednar dribbled an infield single to shortstop, just beating the throw from Tommy DiTullio. Maxwell Costes walked and Bobby Zmarzlak split the left center field gap for his eighth RBI in two days, scoring Bednar and giving the Terps a 1-0 lead.

Left fielder Troy Schreffler walked to load the bases for third baseman Matt Orlando, who slapped a liner to right, scoring Costes. The Terps got another infield hit to shortstop from shortstop Benjamin Cowles to give them a three run cushion in the first.

Maryland got one more across in the bottom of the fourth after Bednar singled through the six-hole and stole second base, followed by a safety squeeze bunt by Schreffler to plate the team’s fourth run. 

Bednar continued to dominate for Maryland in the fifth with a two-run double. The junior has now earned a hit in each of his last five games, three more coming on Saturday.

In relief, freshman Ryan Ramsey came in for Dean in the seventh inning and proceeded to allow three straight singles to DiTullio, Derek Smith, and Gustin to load the bases.

Ramsey was then pulled for Elliot Zoellner, who forfeited just two runs in the inning. 

In the bottom of the inning, catcher Brenton Davis blasted a 1-1 offering from MacDonald over the right field wall for his first hit and home run as a Terp.

Zoellner closed it out for Maryland, inducing a bases loaded double play from Viscariello to secure the series win for the Terps.

Maryland will look for the sweep tomorrow with first pitch scheduled for 1 p.m.