Series Preview: USA Baseball-Irish Classic

After having their midweek game with James Madison rained out Wednesday, the Terrapins will look to get back on track in Cary, N.C. at the USA Baseball-Irish Classic. Much like their season-opening tournament in Clearwater, Maryland will play three games in three days against three different teams. Instead of a minor league field, though, the setting for these matchups will be the USA Baseball National Training Complex.

There are seven other teams in the tournament and, of those, the Terrapins will take on Notre Dame, NC State, and Dayton on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, respectively. For a recap of how Maryland has fared in its first six games, check out this preview for the James Madison game that will now be played on May 10. Here’s a look at the teams the Terps will face as they look to rebound from a 1-5 start to the season.

Notre Dame

The Fighting Irish have struggled out of the gate in 2017 after a 27-27 finish a season ago. Notre Dame has started 1-6, including three straight losses in its most recent series, the Tony Gwynn Classic in San Diego. Despite their lackluster record, the Irish will present challenges for Maryland’s pitchers. They average five runs per game and are capable of scoring in bunches, as they did in a 12-10 win on Feb. 18 over Incarnate Word. The Fighting Irish piled up those runs on 16 hits and scored multiple runs in four different innings en route to the their only win of the season to this point.

Seven games into the season, Notre Dame’s best has hitter has been left fielder Jake Johnson. The junior has put up a .412/.474/.765 line with five runs scored in six games. He’s been particularly effective when he hits near the top of the order. Against Incarnate Word, he went 3-for-5 with 3 RBI from the leadoff spot, and he added a 1-for-3 performance with a walk and a run scored in Notre Dame’s most recent outing, a 7-6 loss to San Diego State.

maryland-at-notre-dameIn that game, the leadoff spot was occupied by the Irish’s second-best hitter, senior third baseman Kyle Flala. Flala, an Indiana native, has posted a 1.049 OPS while starting all seven games for the Irish. He’s got two of Notre Dame’s three home runs for the season and leads the team with eight RBIs. He’s coming off his best game of the season, as well, a 4-for-5 performance against the Aztecs in which he scored twice and drove in two. Flala was a third-team All-ACC player as a sophomore before missing 14 games due to a thumb injury a season ago. He certainly seems to have regained his form early in 2017.

The Irish’s offense has been good enough most games to keep them in it, but their pitching has been knocked around nearly every time out. As a whole, opposing teams have posted a .341/.441/.473 line against the beleaguered Notre Dame staff, leading to a 8.85 team ERA. The Fighting Irish are capable of missing bats, striking out 58 in 60 innings, but patient teams have been able to have success, as they have walked 44 times in the same span. The starters for the Irish have been hit particularly hard, pitching to a 9.59 ERA with only junior Peter Solomon able to get into the fifth inning of a start. Brandon Bielak, the Irish’s Friday starter who Maryland will see on the mound first, has not fared well after leading the team with a 2.10 ERA last season.

No game showcased the Irish’s struggles on the mound more than a Feb. 23 matchup with Cal State-Irvine, in which Notre Dame dropped a 18-4 decision. The Anteaters scored in eight of their nine times up to bat and collected 19 hits and six walks, even though four Notre Dame pitchers combined to strike out 10 hitters. The Irish’s defense didn’t help either, committing five of their 17 errors on the season in that one game.

NC State

Notre Dame’s fellow ACC squad, NC State, has been solid but unspectacular so far this season, compiling a 5-3 record. There were lofty expectations before the season for this team that went 38-22 in 2016 before dropping a 7-5 decision to eventual national champion Coastal Carolina in the Raleigh Regional final. The Wolfpack enter the USA Baseball-Irish Classic ranked No. 6 in the country per, looking to make their third trip to the College World Series and first since 2013.

NC State is certainly capable of putting runs on the board, having already scored at least eight runs in a game three times this season. The middle of the lineup is particularly formidable as Josh McClain, Will Wilson, and Brett Kinneman have hit over .330 combined batting mostly in the 2-3-4 spots of the lineup, respectively. All three have started every NC State game so far this season. Kinneman has led the group, posting a .333/.444/.667 line that includes four doubles and a pair of home runs. The left fielder is just a sophomore, but he’s already made his mark on the college level, as he earned Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American honors in 2016 with six home runs and a .526 slugging percentage.

maryland-at-nc-stateOne player who hasn’t gotten untracked for NC State quite yet is Evan Mendoza. Mendoza, the Wolfpack’s third baseman, was the team’s top returning hitter, a second-team All-ACC performer last season thanks to a .362 batting average and four home runs. Aaron Fitt of called both Mendoza and Kinneman “natural-born hitter[s].” This season, though, Mendoza has managed just a .623 OPS in the team’s first eight games, including a .290 slugging percentage. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior went 3-for-7 with two RBIs in a a pair of midweek games this week, though, and he’ll be looking to build on that performance against Maryland.

The Wolfpack’s pitching has been stingy early in the season, compiling a 3.55 team ERA and holding opposing teams to 1.8 runs per game in the team’s five wins. NC State’s starters have been very good and there has not been much drop-off when the Wolfpack goes to the bullpen. The team’s relief corps has pitched to a 3.95 ERA and three times has gone at least three innings without allowing a run. In a 8-2 win over UNC Greensboro on Tuesday, the Wolfpack bullpen twirled 5 1/3 scoreless innings, scattering seven hits and walking just one.

Sophomore right-hander Austin Staley leads the charge for the NC State relievers, having already appeared four times and thrown eight innings without allowing a run. He’s struck out nine and allowed just three hits as he displays a rare fastball-curveball-changeup mix out of the bullpen. Mathieu Gauthier is a long reliever and spot starter who has struck out 14 in 10 1/3 innings so far this season. He got the start in NC State’s most recent outing, a 6-5 loss to Charlotte on Wednesday.


The Flyers have three players batting .450 or better and four pitchers with ERAs over 10. Despite the small sample size, those numbers tell you just about all you need to know about how their season has gone so far. The Flyers are 2-4 in 2017, a powerful offensive group that struggles keeping other teams off the board. Dayton has won games by scores of 12-11 and 8-7 and lost games that finished 12-6 and, most notably, 21-20 in 12 innings on Feb. 25 against USC Upstate.

maryland-vs-daytonOn offense, Dayton is a juggernaut, hitting .297 as a team and clubbing 10 home runs already, en route to a 9.3 runs per game average. Connor Echols, who has started at both corner outfield spots has been the best Flyer at the plate over the team’s first six games. The sophomore, who hit just .248 without much power in 2016, has seemingly taken a huge step forward this year, racking up 14 hits in 30 at-bats, good for a .467 average and a 1.167 OPS. Echols has homered once and doubled three times after collecting just six extra-base hits all of last season.

As good as Echols has been, he doesn’t even lead the team in OPS this year. That honor goes to first baseman Tate Hagan. The 6-foot-2 freshman went 0-for-4 combined in his first two games at the college level, but has been on fire since, launching three home runs in his last 15 at-bats. In Dayton’s last game, a 8-7 win over Georgetown, he went 3-for-4 with two home runs and a walk. The Tallahassee, Florida native is slugging .842 on the season. Lead-off hitter Nick Ryan also has a pair of homers and is getting on base at a .441 clip.

The picture is not nearly so rosy on the mound for Dayton, though. The two pitchers who have made two starts for the Flyers have both been hit hard as sophomore Austin Cline, who was promising in 2016 with a 4.00 ERA, has seen that number balloon to 16.50 in six innings of work. His rotation mate, freshman Tyler Jones, who will start against Maryland Sunday, has struggled, as well. He leads the team with nine innings pitched thus far in 2017. As a unit, Flyer pitchers have had trouble finding the strike zone, walking 42 batters in 54 1/3 innings, while striking out just 29. In addition to the walks, they’ve hit 15 opposing batters and unleashed 16 wild pitches. When they do put the ball in the hitting zone, opposing batters are raking to the tune of a .341 average. As a team, Dayton has a 9.77 ERA.

Starting Pitching Matchup

FRI 4:30 p.m. EST

RHP Brian Shaffer (0-1, 3.09 ERA) vs. RHP Brandon Bielak (0-2, 10.80 ERA)

shaffer1Maryland_M_Bar_Primary_Athletic_Logo   vs. ndbielak

Shaffer has done what he’s supposed to as a Friday starter, pitching deep into games and giving his team a chance to win. Unfortunately, the Terps have only scored four runs combined in the right-hander’s two starts and they’ve lost both games. The junior has been solid, striking out 12 in 11 2/3 innings while walking just five. He’s holding opponents to a .225 average, as well. In his most recent outing, Shaffer threw 102 pitches over 6 2/3 innings. He allowed three runs on six hits and struck out six LSU hitters, holding the then-No. 5 team in the nation in check.

Bielak was primarily a starter in 2015, when he compiled a 3.55 ERA and made the ACC’s All-Freshman team. Moved to the bullpen last year, he’s back in the rotation as junior, but his return to starting has not gone well so far. He hasn’t finished four innings in either start and he’s allowing hitters to bat .333 against him. He’s walked more (10) than he’s struck out (nine). In his last appearance, he started against San Diego on Feb. 24 and allowed five runs on five hits in 3 2/3 innings of work.

Starting Pitching Matchup

SAT 4:30 p.m. EST

RHP Taylor Bloom (0-2, 14.40 ERA) vs. RHP Cory Wilder (0-0, 0.00 ERA)

bloom1Maryland_M_Bar_Primary_Athletic_Logo  vs. wilder nc

Bloom was Maryland’s ERA leader last season at 2.46, and he’ll be looking to regain that form against No. 6 NC State. The right-hander has given up 12 hits and four walks in five innings through his first two starts of the season. In his last outing, Feb. 25 against LSU, he surrendered five runs in two innings, striking out two and walking one while allowing seven hits. A key for Bloom will be limiting walks. A big reason for his success last season was his rate of just 0.79 BB/9, a number that stands at 7.2 through two starts this year.

Wilder is a senior who has already been a full-time member of the Wolfpack rotation for two years. As a sophomore in 2015 he compiled a 3.50 ERA with 79 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings. The numbers slipped a little last year and he’s had some trouble with his command throughout his time at NC State, walking 6.78 hitters per nine over the last three-plus years. He’s mostly a two-pitch pitcher, throwing a low-90s fastball and a tight slider that makes him tough against right-handers. In his only start so far in 2017, he pitched four shutout innings against Austin Peay, striking out five and walking just one.

Starting Pitching Matchup

SUN 12:30 p.m. EST

LHP Tyler Blohm (1-1, 4.91 ERA) vs. Tyler Jones (0-0, 9.00 ERA)

blohm 1Maryland_M_Bar_Primary_Athletic_Logo  vs. jones ud

Blohm owns Maryland’s only win so far this season, a 9-7 decision over Alabama State in which he pitched five innings and allowed only two earned runs in his first collegiate start. The freshman has shown an ability to miss bats, striking out six in 7 1/3 innings, but he’s also walked six and thrown two wild pitches. He took the loss in his last start, against LSU, giving up five runs (four earned) in 2 1/3 innings. He’ll look to bounce back, but faces a challenge against the high-powered Dayton offense.

Jones is a freshman who has been hit hard in two starts at the collegiate level. His WHIP is over 2 and hitters have had success against him so far, batting at a .432 clip over his first nine innings with the Flyers. His most recent time on the mound, though, he made it through six innings against Georgetown, throwing just 72 pitches in the process in a game Dayton eventually won. The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Jones has pitched to contact so far this season, striking out two and walking three.