By Ben Harris
For the first time in head coach John Szefc’s Maryland coaching career, Maryland will enter the week’s final season fighting for a conference tournament berth.
In 2013, the Terps entered their final series at 28-24 but had been overmatched in ACC play, ending with a 15-14 conference record and no chance at a tournament spot. In Szefc’s second season—an ACC farewell tour for the Big Ten-bound Terps—his club cruised through the season’s final month into the conference tournament on the back of a nine-game winning streak.
And last season, the Terps began their final series tied for third in the conference (35-18, 13-8). With seven of 13 teams under .500 in conference play, a trip to Minneapolis for their first even Big Ten Tournament was all but booked. Maryland would go on to finish as the runner-up en route to their second straight Super Regional appearance.
But, come Thursday, Maryland won’t merely be playing for seeding as they did in 2015; they will be playing with their season on the line. The Rutgers series was the second straight Big Ten series loss at home for Szefc’s Terps, who have dug themselves into a tough spot before heading to Michigan State (33-15, 12-9) this weekend. The struggles of Friday and Saturday’s losses to Rutgers were wiped away briefly Sunday as Senior Day festivities preceded a 6-0 shutout and career head coaching win number 350 for “The General.”
“It was a big day for us coming off of, I say two frustrating days but really four in a row, that kind of put us in a really big hole, and we certainly needed to come out here and play well today to give us some hope going into next weekend,” said Szefc postgame Sunday.
Had Maryland been swept, they likely would have needed to sweep their final series for a shot at making the tournament.
For the second straight week, Maryland experienced a double-digit RPI drop after a disappointing series loss. They dropped 10 spots from 47 to 57 after losing two of three to Illinois two weeks ago, and fell 16 spots to 73 after salvaging just one game this weekend.
Conference foes with more favorable RPIs now include Michigan (29), Minnesota (41), Nebraska (55), Illinois (57), Michigan State (68) and Rutgers (72).
No team currently in the top 75 RPI in the country has dropped as far as Maryland (26 spots) over the last two weeks. Only two others, Oregon State and the Terps’ upcoming opponent Michigan State, have dropped at least ten spots.
But the door is still open for the Terps who can clinch a postseason berth with a series win against the Spartans. That could prove exceedingly difficult as the Spartans’ third-best pitching staff in the country will face one of the Big Ten’s worst offenses.
Michigan State’s K/BB ratio (2.62) is ranked 24 in the nation and their 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings ranks 36 out of 295 teams. Maryland’s team triple-slash is a dismal .258/.359/.383—NCAA ranks 217/151/153—and is even worse in 21 conference games (.235/.307/.322).
“Nothings easy this time of the year, you’re going on the road to play [Michigan State] facing a good lefty, we’ll have to be at our best next weekend to win that series,” said Szefc Sunday.
The southpaw Szefc spoke of is ace Cam Vieaux, whose 2.31 ERA ranks second best in the conference. His 75 strikeouts are tied for sixth in the Big Ten with Maryland’s Mike Shawaryn, the very man who outpitched Vieaux in the tournament opener last year.
To succeed, Maryland will need a combined effort highlighted by the same manner of pitching and defense they displayed Sunday. For a team struggling offensively, the Terps must hone in on the game’s other two facets and let them trump their lacking bats.
“We have to get really good starting pitching and play really good defense behind those guys,” said Szefc. “And just be able to execute, get some timely hits, move runners, I don’t think we have to put 10 runs on the board but I think we have to be better than what we were this weekend offensively.”
But Maryland has their own talented trio of starting pitchers built precisely for series like this and for postseason play.
“Not too many teams in the country have three starting pitchers like we do,” said senior reliever Rob Galligan. “These guys just dominate you and attack you every single pitch of every single inning and not too many teams in the country have that. As long as these dudes just keep on attacking and keep on fighting we’ll be in a good spot.”
That depth in the rotation has given Szefc something he’s never had: reliability throughout a series.
“As good as our teams have been in the last couple years,” said Szefc. “They’ve always gotten swept one weekend or another. And this team, knock on wood, has not gotten swept. You try to take the small victories in life and that’s one of them for this season.”
Since taking over at Maryland, his club has been swept four times: twice in 2013, once in 2014 and once last season.
In order to extend the season, the Terps must not simply avoid the sweep, but play their most complete conference series all year against a formidable opponent. But despite this adversity, unlike any they’ve faced under their current head coach, the Terps can still ride their starting pitching into the Big Ten Tournament and potentially beyond.