When Maryland baseball takes the field in Clearwater, Florida on Friday, it will have been 264 days since last season ended at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska.
If the Terrapins want to end up in Omaha this year, their road starts at 7 p.m. Friday at Spectrum Field in Clearwater.
The Clearwater tournament is set up to host two games each night on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, so the Terps will start off the season with three games in three days against three different teams. Spectrum Field’s usual denizens, the High-A Clearwater Threshers won’t be one of Maryland’s opponents, but the No.-22 ranked Terps will take on Ball State, Louisville and Alabama State.
Ball State represents an Opening Day test for the Terrapins. The Cardinals won a Mid-American Conference West Division title a season ago, finishing 15-9 during the conference season and 32-26 overall. It was the second division title for Ball State in the three seasons since the conference split into two divisions. The other came in 2014, when the Cardinals ran through the conference en route to a 22-4 record.
One player who was on both of those teams was center fielder Alex Call, who hit .351 over three seasons with the Cardinals before the White Sox took him in the third round of the 2016 MLB Draft.
Call started all 58 games for the Cardinals in 2016, and with his absence, they’ll be looking for production from sophomore Roman Baisa, who started 30 games a season ago in left field, and junior college transfer Jeff Riedel, a 2016 Divsion II All-American at Jackson College, to help fill the void Call left.
The Cardinals’ best returning hitter is decorated first baseman Caleb Stayton. The 6-foot-2 senior also started all 58 games for Ball State a year ago and led the team with a .377 average and .482 OBP. The left-handed swinger was second to Call in home runs with 11 on his way to an ABCA All-Mideast Region selection.
On the mound, the Cardinals are led by Kevin Marnon, an imposing 6-foot-7 left-hander who topped the team with 15 starts in 2016, including five quality starts and seven shutout innings in a game against Western Michigan in April. Ball State also returns its two best pitchers by ERA in 2016. Junior Brendan Burns, who towers over almost everyone except Marnon at 6-foot-6, lowered his ERA by nearly four runs to 3.81 in 2016, making 12 starts. He did have some control issues, though, striking out 28 and walking 27. The Cardinals best pitcher will likely be senior BJ Butler. IU will face him on Friday night to open the season.
The Cardinals had one of the best offenses in the MAC last year, leading the conference with a .834 OPS and finishing second with 49 home runs. They also finished second in the conference with a 4.31 team ERA.
On Saturday, the Terrapins will face off against the Louisville Cardinals in what could be the marquee matchup of the tournament. The Cardinals are ranked No. 12 in the D1Baseball preseason poll after winning 50 games last season before dropping two straight tight contests to UC-Santa Barbara in the Super Regionals. Louisville is one of the nation’s premier programs, having made five straight NCAA Tournaments and a College World Series appearance in 2014. The Terrapins will have their hands full in just the second game of the season.
At the top of its lineup, the Cardinals return five players who all hit .300 and got on base at a .400 clip last season, a year in which Louisville led the ACC with a .894 OPS and 101 stolen bases. The leader of that devastating quintet is 5-foot-8 shortstop Devin Hairston, a 2016 ABCA All-American who hit .361/.415/.478 with three home runs and a team-leading 56 runs scored. An x-factor for the Cardinals’ lineup is Logan Taylor, who is faced with the daunting task of replacing Corey Ray in center field. Last season, Ray stole 44 bases without being caught and blasted 15 homers for good measure before the Milwaukee Brewers took him with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2016 draft. Taylor, who slugged just .387 in 61 games last year will be asked to fill those shoes.
As good as they were offensively in 2016, the Cardinals might have been even better on the mound, posting a 2.82 ERA as a team and striking out 568 batters in 569 innings, both far and away the best in the ACC. The top of the starting rotation remains intact with the 1-2 punch of Brendan McKay and Kade McClure appearing frequently in hitters’ nightmares.
The Terrapins will see McClure, who went a perfect 12-0 in 2016, during Saturday’s game. The bullpen is more of a question mark with flame-throwing Zack Burdi, the team’s former closer and a 2016 first-round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox, now knocking on the door of MLB. Redshirt freshman Riley Thompson could provide a spark with a fastball that touches 97 mph.
Maryland will wrap up the season’s first weekend with a Sunday matchup against the Alabama State Hornets of the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). The Hornets were a juggernaut in 2016, laying waste to the SWAC to the tune of a perfect 24-0 conference mark and a spot in the Tallahassee Region of the NCAA Tournament, its first ever tournament appearance.
ASU will take the field under new leadership in 2017 with Jose Vazquez, a former associate head coach, promoted to the top job after the departure of Mervl Melendez to Florida International University. Not much else has changed for the Hornets, though, as they return eight starters from 2016, all of whom were voted on to the preseason first-team All-SWAC squad by the league’s coaches.
One of those returnees is senior outfielder Carlos Ocasio, the 2016 SWAC Player of the Year, who hit .330/.418/.593 with 16 home runs. He’s the favorite to repeat as the league’s POY this year but he’ll have some competition from powerful third baseman Ray Hernandez, who also hit 16 home runs last year and bested Ocasio with a .597 slugging percentage. The pair combined for 32 of the Hornets’ 50 homers last season, but they’ll have help from 2016 SWAC Freshman of the Year Eriq White. The second baseman burst on to the scene in 2016 with a .346 average, 13 doubles and three home runs in 54 games. The Hornets averaged more than eight runs per game in 2016 and figure to have a potent offense again this season.
Alabama State also returns its top starting pitcher from last season’s conference champions. Tyler Howe ranked eighth in the nation with a 1.69 ERA and won 10 games. He’ll face Louisville on Friday and Maryland will see the less-defined back end of the rotation, which includes senior Brandon Caples and junior Darren Kelly. Alabama State’s best arm out of the bullpen is 6-foot-1 right-hander Austin Bizzle. The senior had a 5.53 ERA in 2016 but struck out 9.77 hitters per nine innings and saved two games. He’ll have to step in for last season’s relief ace Angel Alicea, who went 3-0 with a 1.47 ERA before the Toronto Blue Jays drafted him in the 20th round.
Starting Pitching Matchup
FRI AT 7 p.m. EST
RHP Brian Shaffer (2016: 8-3, 2.60 ERA) vs. RHP BJ Butler (2016: 6-1, 1.84 ERA)
Shaffer steps in to take the place of The Unicorn, Mike Shawaryn, as the Terrapins’ Friday starter. The junior certainly seems qualified for the role as he led all Maryland pitchers (including Shawaryn) in wins and innings pitched last year, one of only two pitchers on the staff to throw 100 innings. For his effort, the 6-foot-5 right-hander earned third-team All-Big Ten honors and a No. 2 ranking in D1Baseball’s list of Big Ten 2017 draft prospects. Shaffer throws a fastball that reaches 94, but has excellent command, as well, with a strikeout-to-walk ratio over 5 in 2016.
Butler began last season in the bullpen and finished second in the MAC with nine saves. At the end of the season, though, Butler started two games and went eight innings in each. He finished the year leading the team in ERA, innings pitched (63 2/3) and strikeouts (54). The 6-foot-1 righty is a preseason third-team All-American per Collegiate Baseball.
Starting Pitching Matchup
SAT AT 6 p.m. EST
RHP Taylor Bloom (2016: 6-5, 2.46 ERA) vs. RHP Kade McClure (2016: 12-0, 2.54 ERA)
Bloom essentially matched Shaffer’s season, leading the Terrapins in ERA and strikeout-to-walk rate, punching out 6.67 batters for every free pass he allowed, the 15th-best mark in the country. He was also named third-team All-Big Ten. The similarities between the two pitchers end there, though. Bloom stands 6 feet tall and doesn’t throw as hard as Shaffer. Instead, he gets hitters out with a nasty changeup and great command of all of his pitches.
McClure had one of the best seasons of any pitcher in the country in 2016, finishing with an unblemished record in 15 outings and holding opposing hitters to a paltry .179 batting average. The National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association named him a first-team All-American. He has a fastball that tops out at 92 and solid command, a combination that allowed him to post a tiny 0.88 WHIP and strike out nearly a batter per inning.
Starting Pitching Matchup
SUN AT 10 a.m. EST
LHP Tyler Blohm OR RHP Hunter Parsons (2016: 2-3, 3.50 ERA) vs. RHP Terrell McCall (2016: 0-0, 10.38 ERA)
While Blohm and Parsons battled for the Sunday slot, it’s Blohm who gets the first crack at it Sunday, as pitching coach Ryan Fecteau preferred starting a lefty against Alabama St. Blohm is a freshman who Perfect Game rated the No. 2 left-handed pitcher in the Maryland high school class of 2016. As a senior at Archbishop Spalding (Severn, Md.), he posted a 9-0 record with a 0.74 ERA. The Baltimore Orioles drafted him in the 17th round of the 2016 draft, but the 6-foot-3 Blohm decided to come to Maryland, instead. He brings a low-90s fastball and a good curve to the Terps.
McCall struggled somewhat in six appearances as a freshman, all of which came out of the bullpen. He’ll be expected to make the leap into the starting rotation this season, though, and he certainly has the pedigree to do it. Coming out of high school in 2015, McCall was a top-50 prospect in Georgia, throwing a fastball that topped out at 87 and a sharp curveball that checked in in the low 70s, according to Perfect Game.