By Ben Harris
“Why am I here?”
That was then-freshman Brian Shaffer’s first thought before a start last May.
“I’m a freshman on a major Division I team, I have no idea why I’m here right now.”
“Here” was the pitcher’s mound of Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota, home of the Minnesota Twins. For Shaffer, it was where he’d toe the slab in the 2015 Big Ten Tournament – Maryland’s first as a member of the conference.
Atop the mound he stood, the Terps’ 6-foot-5 freshman who had battled elbow problems early in the season, slated to square off against Illinois, the conference’s top offensive team riding a half-season long 27-game winning streak.
The Fighting Illini promised a potent offense that boasted half of the season’s eight offensive All-Big Ten First Team selections (and two Third Teamers), including Big Ten Player of the Year David Kerian.
It wouldn’t matter. It was on that mound – where the soft-spoken Shaffer couldn’t fathom being – in the middle of the expansive Major League ballpark, that he first blossomed as a collegiate pitcher. The freshman tossed a career high seven innings of one-run ball and struck out seven, also a career high, to lead the Terps to a 2-1 victory snapping the nation’s longest winning streak. Illinois’ First Team standouts went 3-14 on the day, and Kerian a hitless 0-3.
“Not going to lie, I feel pretty great right now,” Shaffer admitted after the game. “I just went out there and pitched my heart out.”
His postseason success earned him the role of Sunday starter in 2016, anchoring a Maryland club looking to add a third-straight 40-win season to the school record books. Prior to 2014, the school had only won 30-plus games four times, never notching more than 34 victories in a single season.
For Shaffer, the tallest starter in the Maryland rotation this season, it begins with his proficiency for pounding the strike zone. Anyone reaching base against him must earn it.
“I would much rather see a person hit a ball over the fence than walk them,” he said.
In his freshman season, he described his zen-like demeanor on the mound.
“I shut everything out, it’s like I’m in another world – there are no worries,” Shaffer said. “All I’m focusing on is throwing strikes and getting batters out.”
His variety of freshman roles – and the sheer importance of his final few starts – sped up his maturation process and thoroughly prepared him for his successful sophomore campaign.
“If I didn’t start [against Illinois], I don’t think I’d be as good a player as I am today,” Shaffer said. “I think that was a huge building block for my success [this season].”
Head coach John Szefc called Shaffer a “mini-Shawaryn” before his freshman year, a lofty comparison to the Golden Spikes semifinalist who would end 2015 with a 1.71 ERA, 13-2 record, 138 strikeouts in 116 innings and the school’s all-time wins record. But, Szefc, along with the rest of the coaching staff, knew Shaffer came to Maryland with a high ceiling.
For the better part of his freshman campaign, Shaffer was Szefc’s pitching Swiss Army knife.
The right-hander made his collegiate debut in the 2015 season opener, earning the save after tossing three scoreless innings, allowing one hit and setting down the first eight batters he faced. A month and a half later, he earned his second career win after allowing one hit over six scoreless innings of long relief. By season’s end, he had solidified himself in a Terrapin rotation that, behind ace Mike Shawaryn, had seen very little stability.
Just eight days after his start against Illinois, Shaffer took the hill in game one of the NCAA Regional final – a series that pitted the Terps against UCLA, the tournament’s top overall seed, on their home turf.
He would pick up right where he left off, allowing one unearned run in two innings, but was removed from the game in the top of the third. Shaffer felt pain in his elbow again – at best a strain, at worst, an injury that would require Tommy John surgery.
It would turn out to be a flexor tendon and ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) sprain. Shaffer avoided surgery, but the strains sidelined him for the summer. Then, in the fall, Shaffer re-aggravated his elbow, straining his UCL for the second time in four months.
He received a platelet-rich plasma injection in September, followed by 13 weeks of rehab, likely contributing to his slow start in 2016.
A 5.68 ERA was all Shaffer had to show for 12.2 innings worth of starts against Alabama, Rhode Island and East Carolina to begin the season. With an uncharacteristic four walks in those starts, Shaffer resorted to his bread and butter to turn around his season: attacking hitters – and the strike zone – early and often.
The results were immediate. Shaffer has now struck out 29 batters on the year, walking just five and allowing only 14 earned runs (just six in his last four starts). After passing the career 100-inning mark on Sunday, he’s struck out 81 and walked 14 in 23 career appearances (18 starts), good for a 5.78 K/BB ratio.
“I’ve grown more mature,” he said. “Last year when I got here, I still had the high school mentality that I could blow the ball by anybody like I used to.”
As his mental make-up strengthened and developed, so too has his arsenal, with the off-season addition of a changeup to his existing fastball and slider.
“I’m pretty comfortable throwing everything at different points in the count,” Shaffer said of his newly fortified repertoire. “My changeup is new this year so I’m still getting used to it but I’m getting pretty confident with it.”
His new weapon has aided his 70-plus strike percentage on the season, a mark he’s topped in each of his last four starts.
Shaffer has since bounced back from his rusty start to the season, winning three straight starts in March and posting an identical 0.72 ERA and 0.72 WHIP to the tune of 18 strikeouts and just one walk. Since his first three starts, he’s thrown 72.9 percent of his offerings for strikes.
Topping his 2016 resume are back-to-back complete games. In the rubber game of a three-game set out west, Shaffer tossed the first complete game of this career against the No. 23-ranked Cal State Fullerton Titans, striking out five and once again walking none. The Maryland bats backed the sophomore with just one run, but it was all he would need, going the distance in just 99 pitches.
“He should be National Pitcher of the Week, no less Big Ten Pitcher of the Week,” Szefc said after the shutdown performance. “I’m just throwing that out there. I’d like to see anyone else in America come in and do that.”
“Doing that” would be shutting out the Titans, a perennial powerhouse with 24-straight NCAA tournament appearances, in enemy territory in such spectacular fashion. It was the first time since May 20, 2012, that Cal State was shut out at home in a series-clinching game. One day later, Shaffer was awarded Big Ten Co-Pitcher of the Week honors.
“It’s pretty cool,” Shaffer said of his all-conference honor on Maryland Baseball Network’s weekly podcast. “After seeing Mike [Shawaryn] win it so many times, it’s kind of interesting having it happen to me. I never really thought that it would.”
Opponents hit just .202 against Shawaryn last year and are hitting just .209 against the junior this season, despite his recent struggles. Opposing hitters fare even worse against Shaffer this season hitting at just a .207 clip, sixth-best in the conference.
He made a bid to win the Big Ten honor for the second straight week with a second straight complete game. This time, it gave the Terps their first win in Big Ten play this season, a 4-1 victory to salvage a game from the Iowa Hawkeyes.
Once again the right-hander dazzled, walking none for the second straight game and tying the career-high seven-strikeout mark that he set in his ever-important start last May against Illinois. This time, the complete game didn’t take 99 pitches; it took only 90.
Now a sophomore, the right-hander knows why he’s “here,” whether that be pitching at Target Field in the Big Ten Tournament, or on the hill at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium this weekend when the Terps take on Ohio State.
“Just like it has been before, to help my team win as much as possible is what drives me forward,” Shaffer said.
But it’s more than that. It’s more than Shaffer can convey in a few words. With a motion on the mound even quieter than he is, the sophomore prefers to let his pitching do the talking. The fastball says hello, the change-up switches the subject, and the slider promptly ends the conversation.
One thing is for certain, though. The college baseball world is just beginning to hear from Brian Shaffer, the Terps’ fast-developing ace.