The view from the mound is a little bit better than the view from the batter’s box, according to junior Jamal Wade.
Wade, an outfielder-turned-reliever, has emerged as one of the Terrapins’ more effective—and surprising—arms out of the bullpen. In just 16.1 innings, the right-hander has struck out 27 batters and walked twelve. His .203 opponent’s batting average is third-best on the team among pitchers with 15 or more innings-pitched.
Currently, Wade is striking out 14.9 batters per nine innings, a mark that would be second in the nation if he had enough innings to qualify.
His first career appearance as a college pitcher came against then-No. 5 LSU at Alex Box Stadium on February 25. It was mop-up duty, with the Terps already trailing 12-0. He entered the ballgame with two runners on base and nobody out, with 10,608 fans clad in purple and gold cheering against him—a daunting situation for a debut.
“Usually when hitting, I’m never nervous—I don’t think I’ve ever been nervous hitting or in the outfield,” Wade said after the appearance. “I was fine the whole time warming up, and then when I got out there, I was like ‘wow, this is for happening for real.'”
His first career pitch was a ball. The second pitch induced a 6-4-3 double play. Then, after allowing a single that scored a run (charged to freshman right-hander Elliot Zoellner), Wade closed out the inning with a flyout. In the next frame, he retired the side in order, recording his first two career strikeouts in the process.
“Until this fall, I never thought I’d be pitching in a college game, so it was pretty cool,” Wade said after the outing. “After that first pitch, I was locked in.”
LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE
Over the summer, Wade played for the Keene Swamp Bats in the Northeast Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL). He arrived as a hitter, and returned to College Park, Maryland, as a two-way player.
Early in the summer season, the Swamp Bats found themselves trailing the Valley Blue Sox 14-5 in the seventh inning, and discovered they had run out of pitchers because rosters were still depleted—many players were still with their college teams in the NCAA Tournament or playing in other leagues on temporary summer contracts.
So, the Swamp Bats’ head coach, Jimmy Neygrych—currently a volunteer assistant coach at the University of Pittsburgh—asked the dugout for volunteers. Wade was the first to raise his hand, and got the ball.
“I just warned him not to throw any off-speed pitches or gear up and throw hard, just lob that ball over and get ready for it,” Negrych said.
Unbeknownst to Negrych and the rest of the team, Wade had pitched in high school for the St. Paul’s Crusaders. His senior season, he went 8-1 with a single-season record 0.52 ERA. In 69 innings, he struck out 54 batters and walked 21. So, Wade had no intention of listening to his summer coach.
“He told me to just go out there, throw all fastballs at 75 percent so you don’t hurt yourself,” Wade said. “In the back of my mind, I was like, ‘All right, I’m not going to do that. I want to actually try to pitch.’”
He came out firing heaters in the low-to-mid-90s, and flashing a powerful curveball. The right-hander worked a 1-2-3 frame, striking out two. In the next frame, Wade allowed a leadoff single, but struck out the next three batters he faced.
“His first pitch, he got into his stretch and threw it in there, and it was like, WHOOMPH,” Negrych said. “Three pitches later, the guy hitting wasn’t even near the baseball. It was just shocking how good it was.”
Neygrych recognized that Maryland head coach John Szefc might have lightning in a bottle in Wade, and gave the Terps’ skipper a call.
“I told him [Wade] was sitting 91-93 with a breaking ball that was absolutely filthy,” he said. “So, I asked [Szefc] if he wanted me to get [Wade] with our pitching coach to mix him in to see what he could do out there. You could tell right away that that ball just—I mean, there was something different about it.”
So Szefc called Wade to see how he felt about pitching, and asked if wanted to continue. Wade jumped at the opportunity.
“I remember talking to our pitching coach—Chris Combs—and he was amazed at how much [Wade] wanted to work at it,” Negrych said. “[Wade] would seek him out to ask to throw a flat-ground to work on a change-up, or work on a breaking ball. I think the success he had on the mound made him hungrier to keep learning that because he just felt so good about what he was doing out there.”
Wade finished the Swamp Bats’ season as a two-way player, hitting .267 with two home runs in 24 games. On the mound, he stuck out 21 and walked only eight batters in 11⅓ innings, posting a 1-1 record and a 1.58 ERA. Wade led the league (min. 10 innings) in strikeouts-per-nine innings, posting a mark of 16.70.
The experiment continued in the fall during intrasquad scrimmages, and Wade quickly made his mark. More than once, he earned “Flamethrower of the Week” honors from the team, awarded to the pitcher who throws the hardest fastball during intrasquad action. Still, he struggled, admittedly trying to prove himself to the team as a pitcher based on the numbers he posted during the summer. When he relaxed and took the pressure off himself, results improved.
“I think the first few times, you saw him as a position player who was just throwing,” Maryland shortstop Kevin Smith said. “Now when he gets up there, it’s like any other pitcher that comes out of the bullpen.”
And, like any other pitcher, Wade has had the occasional rough outing. Just this past weekend, he entered in the fifth inning against Northwestern after five straight batters reached base against right-hander Ryan Hill. Wade subsequently threw a wild pitch—his eighth of the year—and allowed a single before walking the final three batters he faced. He was charged with two runs and failed to record an out, resulting in his ERA ballooning from 3.86 to 4.96.
The growing pains are not uncommon for a position player transitioning to a become a full-time pitcher. And Wade isn’t the first Maryland player to make that conversion. Right-hander Mike Rescigno was the most recent to jump from the batter’s box to the mound, becoming a full-time pitcher last season. Former Terps right-hander Jake Stinnett began his Maryland career as the starting third baseman his freshman year. He eventually became the team’s ace en route to his selection in the second-round of the 2014 MLB Draft by the Chicago Cubs.
“[Transitioning to the mound] is not a foolproof process where there’s only one way to do it—it depends on the guy. It’s taken [Wade] a while, but his progress has been very impressive,” Szefc said. “[The fall] was a quick, early look at what might be there and you can’t deny it, so you look at it and go, ‘well, let’s keep working with this, keep developing it, and see where it goes.’”
Wade arrived at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium, like Stinnett, as a third baseman. Not only was he a third baseman, but considered to be the top third baseman in the state of Maryland according to Perfect Game. His play for St. Paul’s earned him First Team All-Metro honors from The Baltimore Sun in 2014.
During his first few practices, Wade, like he did in high school, played the infield. But after just a couple of weeks, he was moved to the outfield—his first position switch. It wouldn’t be his last.
The 6’0, 200-lb. Wade began his collegiate career 0-for-8 at the plate. Then, in his ninth at-bat, he crushed a home run against Princeton for his first career hit. Two weeks later, Wade smacked another long ball—this time against Michigan—for his second career hit.
Then, just one week later, Wade was a late addition to the starting lineup in the Terps’ series finale against Nebraska after Nick Cieri injured his hand during batting practice. In his second at-bat of the day, Wade went deep again, giving him three career hits, all of which were home runs.
“I was kind of shocked, Wade said. “I wasn’t trying to hit home runs, I was just trying to swing hard and get a hit. After the third one, I did try to swing for the fences and ended up actually hitting a single.”
Wade hit two more home runs his freshman year, but finished the season with a .231 average, tallying more strikeouts (29) than hits (21) in 35 games. As a sophomore, Wade managed just three hits in 27 at-bats, striking out 11 times. This season has been much of the same for Wade at the plate, where he’s 0-for-7. In his career, Wade has struck out 41 times in 125 at-bats, or once every three at-bats.
“You have less than a second to react to the ball, and you don’t know what’s coming,” Wade said. “[Hitting] is the hardest thing to do in sports. No matter how much you practice, three-out-of-ten and you’re a Hall-of-Famer, so you’re pretty much set up for failure.”
COMMITTED TO PITCHING
Down in Wilmington, N.C., before a two-game set against the UNC Wilmington Seahawks earlier this season, the Maryland coaching staff had a meeting with Wade. They asked him how he was feeling about pitching, and told him they planned on using him more, so he should be ready to come into the game later that day.
Just a few hours later, the right-hander was on the mound, making just his third career appearance. To that point, he had tossed three innings, allowing three hits and a run, striking out three and walking two.
The first batter he faced, shortstop Kennard McDowell, struck out swinging, but scampered to first base after the ball got away from catcher Danny Maynard. McDowell later moved to second on a balk, and scored on a single. After the single, Wade struck out the next three batters he faced, striking out four batters in an inning for Maryland for the first time since redshirt senior right-hander Jared Price turned the trick on April 8, 2014 against George Mason. The four strikeouts in the frame for Wade also more than doubled his career total.
The next frame went much quicker for the hurler, as he struck out the side in order for a total of seven strikeouts in just two innings of work.
“Right after, [pitching coach Ryan Fecteau] said, ‘Well, I guess our talk went well,’” Wade said with a laugh.
Smith, Wade’s roommate, doesn’t have a vivid memory of the feat, even though he was only a few feet away at shortstop.
“You don’t really notice when you’re playing,” Smith said. By the eighth or ninth inning you’re looking back and realize you don’t remember much about those two innings and that’s because he struck everyone out.”
Throughout the beginning of the season, Wade continued to take batting practice. But, the weekend after his appearance against UNC-W, during the Terps’ series against Rutgers, he decided to quit hitting and commit to focusing on pitching. Since 2016, he was just 3-for-34 (.088) with twelve strikeouts and zero extra-base hits. The coaching staff was fully supportive of his decision.
“I think he wanted to put 100-percent of his effort into what he feels like is going to be his future, here and at the next level,” Szefc said.
And, Wade is being called on out of the bullpen more often since that weekend—the midway point in the season. The first half of the year, the right-hander appeared just four times in 25 games. In the 25 games since, he’s made ten relief appearances, tied with Hill for second-most on the team in that span, trailing only right-hander Ryan Selmer.
“He has gradually worked his way into a pretty important role, Szefc said. “It’s almost like he’s kind of re-made his baseball life a little bit, which is a good thing. He’s become one of our really important guys and I think he knows that.”
THE NEXT STEP
As the season has progressed, there have been more and more scouts whose radar guns perk up when Wade enters a ballgame. His fastball has touched 95 mph, and his curveball, which sits in the low-80s, has many teams intrigued.
Negrych thinks that Wade could end up being one of the best prospects to come out of the 2016 NECBL summer, largely because of his untapped potential, but also because of his curveball.
“I talked to some scouts who were asking about his story, and I told them I thought his breaking ball was the best one in the league,” Negrych said. “It’s a 12-6 [curveball] that’s just got some snap to it.”
And, even though he’s come a long way he pitched over the summer, and even farther since he pitched in high school, Wade still surprises even himself.
“I didn’t think I’d be throwing as hard as I am now,” Wade said. “When they told me, I was like, ‘Wow, I never threw that hard in my life.’ My curveball still shocks me sometimes. Sometimes it’s okay, and other times it moves a lot more than I thought it would.”
When he enters from the bullpen, “Do What I Want” by Lil Uzi Vert blares through the stadium speakers. The song—and it’s lyrics—are emblematic of Wade’s journey from third base to the outfield, and now from the outfield to the mound.
After struggling at the plate for a few seasons, Wade has found success on the mound. Now, Wade is doing what he wants. And what he wants to do is pitch.