By Ben Harris
With 23 days and 14 games remaining in the regular season, this weekend’s three-game set with Penn State may prove to be Maryland’s most important.
The Terps (22-18, 7-5 Big Ten) have four series remaining in the all-important conference schedule where their 7-5 record ranks tied for sixth. Their final Big Ten series pits them against a dangerous Michigan State ball club that holds the conference’s top overall record at 28-10. Additionally, the Spartans’ 11-2 record at home, where the Terps will travel in late May, ranks tied for second in the Big Ten.
The Nittany Lions are 9-6 in conference play and sit one rung above the Terps in the standings. With a series win, Maryland would jump Penn State and move up in the rankings, potentially as high as number three or four.
Looking one and two weekends ahead, Maryland will face Illinois and Rutgers, two bottom-half Big Ten teams, in the friendly confines of Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium. The disadvantage of having easier opponents at home is your RPI rarely rises unless you secure a series sweep. This past weekend after taking two of three from Purdue, 256th out of 300 in RPI, Maryland dropped from 37 to 57.
So with a daunting matchup in East Lansing, Michigan, to end the season preceded by two weaker opponents at home, a chance to make their first real imprint on the top-third of the conference standings with a series win would be a boon to the Terps’ postseason chances.
While D1Baseball’s most recent NCAA Tournament projections continue to include Maryland, the Terps are firmly planted on the bubble as one of the “last teams in the field this week.”
For Maryland to pull off such a feat, they must not wait to ignite their offense as they have in so many weekend series. In 11 Friday games the Terps average just three runs and have been outscored 33-50, including a Friday doubleheader sweep of Ohio State three weekends ago. But, they’ve dropped their last two Friday games, needing a Saturday and Sunday sweep for a shot at winning the series. That added pressure was too much to overcome for the bullpen two weekends ago against Minnesota, while last weekend, against a lesser Purdue squad, the starting pitching was able win back-to-back games.
Playing from behind at any point in this series is a formidable task due to submariner Jack Anderson, Penn State’s closer, all-time saves leader and current owner of an NCAA-best 0.65 ERA. More as a formality than anything else, the National College Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) tabbed him in their Midseason Stopper of the Year Watch List. Although 39 others were also selected, the Big Ten saves leader – tied for eighth overall throughout the NCAA with 10 – has a legitimate shot at the honor.
Only two Big Ten relievers have been handed the ball more times than Anderson (22 appearances), one of whom is Maryland’s own Rob Galligan (23).
With eight wins in their last 11 chances, the Terps are a season-high four games above .500. After a loss to open their weekend series against Purdue, Maryland’s offense has erupted averaging 12 runs per game in their last three; their most recent, a rain-soaked, six-and-a-half hour 19-12 marathon win over James Madison on Wednesday, featured a two-hour lightning delay Marty McFly and Doc Brown would have been proud of.
For a full breakdown of Maryland and Penn State’s conference statistical rankings, see below:
STARTING PITCHING MATCHUP
FRI 6:30 pm EST
Jr. RHP Mike Shawaryn (3-3, 3.60 ERA) vs. So. LHP Taylor Lehman (1-7, 4.50 ERA)
Maryland will return to the rotation with which they began the season as Mike Shawaryn has pitched himself back into the Friday slot. Filling in on Saturday last weekend due to Bloom’s tweaked ankle, The Unicorn continued to throw well, tossing his second 10-strikeout game in his last three games. His ERA in his last two starts is a mere 1.22. The Terps have a legitimate chance to win a Friday game for the first time in two weeks against a 1-7 Taylor Lehman. However, just a year a ago, he ranked second on the club in strikeouts as a freshman with 41.
STARTING PITCHING MATCHUP
SAT 3:00 pm EST
So. RHP Taylor Bloom (5-2, 2.10 ERA) vs. So. RHP Sal Biasi (4-4, 4.05 ERA)
Bloom sports a 1.22 ERA in his last two starts (eight strikeouts, one walk), but was sidelined last weekend. Bloom leads the Maryland rotation in ERA (2.10) in nine starts. He’s tied for the league lead with the fewest walks allowed this year (five), with the fifth lowest ERA. Facing the Terps will be sophomore Sal Biasi. He’s struck out more than a batter per inning (48 in 46.2 innings), holds opponents to a .225 batting average but has allowed a team-high four home runs.
STARTING PITCHING MATCHUP
SUN 1:00 pm EST
So. RHP Brian Shaffer (4-3, 2.94 ERA) vs. Fr. RHP Justin Hagenman (6-1, 2.81 ERA)
Shaffer is looking to shake off his worst performance of 2016 last weekend, a five-run, 3.1 inning performance in a surprise Friday start. For the second straight start, Shaffer has uncharacteristically walked two batters. Prior, he had walked just five through 50.2 innings. Anchoring the staff for Penn State is freshman standout Justin Hagenman, whose 6-1 record and 2.81 ERA are tops for all Nittany Lions starters.