In the seventh inning of a 4-4 game against Nebraska, cleanup hitter Brandon Gum stepped to the plate for Maryland with a runner on first. Gum liked the first pitch he saw and roped a single to left field, putting two on base.
Will Watson hit next and he too hacked at the first pitch, hitting a line drive just over the outstretched glove of the leaping Cornhusker second baseman. The single to right drove in Marty Costes to give the Terps a lead that they would not relinquish.
Earlier in the game, relief pitcher Ryan Hill had jogged out of the Haymarket Park bullpen and into a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam. He proceeded to escape after allowing just one run.
For the next four innings, Hill mowed down Nebraska’s lineup, throwing a season-high 72 pitches. The right-hander allowed just one run and struck out five Cornhuskers, while Watson and Gum reached base seven times combined in a road victory over a team that had previously been undefeated in Big Ten play.
All three players were instrumental in one of Maryland’s most important wins of the season. All three were playing somewhere else last year. Gum, Watson and Hill, all transfers, have been key pieces all season long on a Terps team that sits atop the Big Ten.
Each member of the aforementioned trio transferred to Maryland before this season, while outfielder Madison Nickens transferred before the 2016 season.
In total, Gum, Watson and Nickens, the three position player transfers, have hit nine of the team’s 38 home runs and collected 65 of its 219 RBIs. All three have been mainstays in the everyday lineup, starting at least 30 times each in 39 games.
Nickens, who came to Maryland from LSU-Eunice, says it’s no accident that the transfers play such a large role on the team. The Maryland coaching staff recruits players that are ready to contribute.
“The recruiting job is really well done,” Nickens said. “They recruit guys they know can fit in right away. And so, when we come, it’s just easy to fit in. We have a role in mind they’d like us to fill once we get here. They recruit us for a reason.”
Head Coach John Szefc expects transfers to come in and contribute immediately, and he has been impressed with how all four on this year’s team have performed.
“They’ve been productive, they’ve been good,” Szefc said. “That’s what you want a transfer to do. You like to have your transfer guys come in and not operate like typical freshmen where it takes them a while to understand things.
“There’s always a maturation process when they come in from one program to another, but you hope because they’re a little bigger, faster, stronger, more mature, with some college baseball experience under their belt, that they can adjust quicker to how our operation works.”
When Szefc and his staff look for transfers to bring into the program, they don’t look players with one specific skillset. Rather, the coaches look for players that will fill a hole on the roster, which is why the ability to play right away is an important quality in a potential transfer.
“It depends on what our need is really,” Szefc said. “It depends on the position, it depends on the need. Hopefully they have good numbers and you’re going to programs that you’ve been to before or you know that they’ve had success pumping out Division I players.”
Hill’s former school, Grayson College in Denison, Texas, certainly fit that description. It’s produced a handful of major leaguers, including active pitchers John Lackey and Mike Bolsinger.
“When [Maryland’s coaches] recruited me, they told me, ‘We’re not going to bring you in to sit the bench and use you every now and then,’” said Hill, who struck out a whopping 12.1 hitters per nine innings in 2016. “’If we’re going to bring in a transfer, we’re bringing them in to get work right away.’”
Hill has gotten plenty of work in his first season with the Terrapins. The 6-foot-1 Texan has pitched in a team-high 18 games. He’s been one of Maryland’s most effective relievers, posting a 3-0 record and a 2.51 ERA across 32.1 innings. Last Wednesday against William & Mary, he made his first start with the Terps, tossing three no-hit innings en route to a Maryland victory.
He also considered transferring from Grayson to Coastal Carolina, but a visit to Maryland during the 2016 season made it clear that he wanted to be a Terrapin.
“Just watching how they want about their practice and it kind of resembled my [junior college],” Hill said. “Everyone was laid back, having fun, but they were getting their work done and getting better each day. It felt like I was going to something I already knew.”
Nickens, who was in his first season with the program at the time, showed Hill around campus. The Terrapins were supposed to have a game, but it was rained out, so Hill and his host got pizza instead.
When the pitcher officially committed to Maryland, Nickens sent him a text welcoming him to the team. Upon Hill’s arrival on campus in August, the elder Terp made sure the newcomer fit in with his teammates, which Hill said boosted his confidence on the mound.
“I feel like when you fit in with the team, you’re more relaxed out there,” he said. “Being a pitcher, when the defense sees the pitcher’s relaxed and has a good tempo and is doing well, then they’re out there relaxed and they’re going to play.”
In hosting Hill, Nickens was in a way paying it forward, as the outfielder had also made his decision after an older player had made him feel comfortable on a visit. When Nickens visited a year prior, Anthony Papio, a four-year Terps outfielder who is now part of the team’s coaching staff, hosted the Louisiana native.
“He was a big part [of my decision to come to Maryland],” Nickens said of Papio. “I was with him, there was an instant connection. He was my roommate the next year, he was a fellow outfielder and I loved playing with him.”
Watson, like Nickens, is a Louisiana native who had previously played at LSU-Eunice. It’s no coincidence that the same school has produced two of Maryland’s four transfers. Szefc was an assistant at Louisiana-Lafayette from 2003-2008 and has a friendly relationship with Eunice Head Coach Jeff Willis.
“[LSU-Eunice] is about 40 minutes from Lafayette, so I’ve watched them play since 2003,” Szefc said. “Whenever we need a guy, I’ll start there and if [Willis] doesn’t have one, he’ll tell me where one is. He’s just a good reference, he knows everything about the Deep South.”
Like his teammates, Watson credits the coaching staff for picking players they know will fit the system Maryland likes to play. He says a “blue-collar” mentality is part of Maryland’s identity and the transfers that come in all have that mindset. Speaking with Szefc and his staff played a key role in convincing the outfielder that Maryland was the place he wanted to play.
“Once I built that relationship with the coaching staff and knew their philosophy, I knew it really fit my skill set and what I can do on the field,” said Watson, who has started 36 games this year and gone a perfect 12-for-12 on stolen base attempts.
Nickens hosted his former Bengals teammate on the latter’s visit to College Park, and Watson called his teammate his “inside man” at Maryland when he was making his decision. The pair ate lunch with the coaches at Looney’s Pub on Baltimore Avenue and later had dinner at Blackwall Hitch in Annapolis, where Watson tried Maryland crab for the first time. He felt the final decision to play at Maryland was an easy one.
“Once I built those relationships with [Associate Head Coach Rob] Vaughn and Coach Szefc and with all the previous success, with going to the Super Regional [in 2015], it was really a no-brainer for me,” Watson said.
Unlike his fellow transfers, Gum took a different route to College Park. Instead of transferring from a junior college, he came to Maryland as a graduate transfer after four years at nearby George Mason. Despite being in the final stages of recovery from shoulder surgery when the season began, Gum has emerged as one of the most reliable bats in Maryland’s order while learning to play first base. Through 34 games, the infielder is hitting .315 with three home runs and a team-high 24 walks and .458 on-base percentage.
The Virginia native said Szefc didn’t have to do much to convince him College Park was the best place for him because Maryland had been his “number one choice” going into the process. Once he made the decision to continue his career with the Terps, he was able to tell his mom that he would be playing in her home state.
“She was really happy because she’s from Maryland and I always made jokes about the Maryland flag and how they’re obsessed with it,” Gum said of his mother, Betty. “Now she loves that I have to wear it on everything.”
The team’s most senior member said it hasn’t been difficult to fit in with his new teammates. At least one of them has trouble remembering a time when he wasn’t a Terp.
“I feel like it was a quick transition once I was able to get back on the field after recovering from surgery,” Gum said. “I was hitting with [Zach] Jancarski one day and he made some comment about two years ago and I was like, ‘Man, I wasn’t here.’ He was like, ‘Dude I keep forgetting, I feel like you’ve been here all three years I’ve been here.’”
Watson, too, has not had any trouble meshing with the rest of the team. He hinted at another reason transfers are able to have so much success immediately: the rest of the team is full of accepting players who are able make newcomers feel comfortable as soon as they arrive.
“The chemistry is really good, I mean we’re all best friends,” Watson said. “We all live in the same apartments, we’re all best friends with each other, joking around and doing a bunch of fun stuff.”
The team has had fun on the field, as well, racking up 28 wins, including seven straight victories. Much of that success comes from the players who have found a new home in College Park.