Small ball makes big impact on Terps offense in 2017

Every team wants to win their home opener, not only to put on a show for the fans, but to set the tone for the season. On March 7, Maryland, just like any team trying to accomplish such a feat, was looking for any advantage they could get. In a tight game late against a scrappy William & Mary team, the Terrapins employed a tactic that has thus far been successful for them in 2017: small ball.

In the sixth inning against the Tribe, Maryland found themselves down two and in need of a spark. Madison Nickens stepped up to the plate and dropped down a bunt single to start the inning.

This forced Tribe pitcher John Yoest to work from the stretch. Two doubles and a single later, the Terps plated three runs. In search of insurance runs in the following inning, they used similar tactics.

Junior Will Watson slides safely into second base for a stolen base. Hannah Evans/Maryland Baseball Network 3/12/2017

Will Watson, after reaching base on a fielder’s choice, swiped second base. That left a free base open, and the Tribe were more willing to give up a walk, putting Nickens aboard again. After a Kevin Smith single, the bags were juiced, and the Terps plated a run when Danny Maynard was hit by a pitch. This run would not have been possible without that steal by Watson, and that one run was the margin of victory for Maryland in their 9-8 win.

A year ago, the Terps finished at a respectable 30-27, but they had higher expectations coming into this season being ranked in most national polls. Maryland retained a lot of players from the 2016 squad, but had a lot of fresh faces, and many returning players have increased or different roles on this year’s team. One month into the 2017 season, this fresh look has led to a new identity for the ball club.

Maryland has played 15 games so far this year after playing 57 last year. In just over a quarter the amount of games, the Terrapins have stolen more bases this year than they did in all of 2016. They stole 28 bases last year at a 63 percent clip, but this year they have already stolen 33 with an 83 percent success rate.

To put that in perspective, Maryland averaged less than half a steal a game in 2016, but have an average of 2.27 swipes per game this year. They are currently fourth in the country in steals per game, and the highest ranked power-five school.

At this pace, the Terps will swipe about 127 bases this season, a number that would have tied them for third in all of NCAA Division-I baseball in 2016.

However, stealing bases is not the only aspect of small ball they have utilized. The Terps have six bunt base hits this season, compared to just two at this point last year. If they were to keep up their current pace for the rest of the season, they would reach safely on 22 bunt hits in 2017. This has transformed how this John Szefc-led squad plays.

The Terrapins have failed to execute a successful bunt or steal a base just four times this season, and in those games they are  0-4, averaging just 2.3 runs scored. In games in which the Terps simply convert at least one successful bunt, they are 7-0, plating an impressive 9.3 runs a game. When they steal at least one base, they are 9-2 with 7.5 runs scored on average. When bunting at least once and stealing one bag, Maryland has suffered just one defeat this year, at the hands of then No. 12-ranked Louisville.

A change in approach does not automatically bring success. But, for this Maryland team, it has certainly contributed to their winning ways. Look no further than their last home series against Bryant. In the front-end of Sunday’s doubleheader against the Bulldogs, Maryland was looking to respond after their lead was cut to just two runs. The Terrapins responded with two insurance runs, manufactured with the tactic they’ve implemented numerous times this season.

After a lead off walk by Marty Costes, Brandon Gum, in his first year with Maryland, laid down a bunt single, and Costes reached third on an error. Gum then stole second base, leaving first base open. Bryant elected to walk the dangerous but scuffling Kevin Smith, to load the bases for Kevin Biondic. The Bulldogs viewed that base as rather meaningless because occupying it could lead to a force at any base. Instead, it led to runs, as Biondic walked to force in a run and extend Maryland’s lead.

Had Gum not reached on a bunt and stolen second, Smith would not have been on first to load the bases and set up a run-scoring opportunity. The Terps would score again that inning thanks to an RBI groundout, but that is far from the only time that this type of approach has worked for Maryland this year.

On March 8, while attempting to extend their winning streak to five games, Maryland sat tied with St. Joseph’s heading into the eighth inning. Nickens led off the frame with a long home run over the center field fence, to give the Terps a one-run lead, but they added five more insurance runs in the inning, keyed by three bunts from Smith, AJ Lee and Zach Jancarski.

The common belief is that bunting is giving up an out, but, when done correctly, it can be much more than that, as the Hawks learned that inning. It makes the defense move, think, and react quickly, which can lead to errors or defensive lapses. Bunting can also help kick start slumping hitters. Smith is off to a slow start at the plate this season, but was still able to drop down a bunt single in that eighth inning against St. Joe’s.

Sophomore AJ Lee puts down a sacrifice bunt. Hannah Evans/Maryland Baseball Network 3/10/2017

These examples are just a few instances that point to small ball working for Maryland in their first 15 games, and the numbers back it up.

Amazingly, the Terps have changed their approach while losing Anthony Papio, who was tied with Nickens for the team lead with eight stolen bases last year.

But, while Papio may be gone from the lineup, he remains on the field in the first-base coaching box, helping Maryland’s baserunners take their leads and get better jumps on opposing pitchers.

Lee, who appeared in just 19 games last year has already played in 13 this season. He is 5-for-6 on stolen base attempts this year after not attempting any steals a year ago. Jancarski leads the team this season with six steals, one more than he totaled all of last season. Two transfers, Gum and Watson, have contributed on the basepaths as well, with five and four steals respectively.

Before falling to North Carolina Tuesday, Maryland rattled off eight consecutive wins, in large part due to their new approach that focuses on putting the ball in play and swiping bases. For the Terps to have continued success, they will need to continue this style of play.