In the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday, Maryland shortstop AJ Lee rounded first base, turned to his dugout and yelled “Let’s go!” after roping a two-out, RBI single that capped a five-run rally that fell short in an 8-6 loss to Creighton.
Lee reached base three times in the series finale: the single in the ninth, a walk in the eighth and a hit-by-pitch in the seventh. The senior holds a .406 OBP in 16 games, a mark that ranks third on the team.
Although the Terps were swept for the second consecutive three-game set, Lee finished the series 4-for-9 with two walks and two hit-by-pitches in his second week back from an ankle injury he suffered on March 1.
And, while Lee is still only batting .231, Maryland head coach Rob Vaughn isn’t concerned. After a rough start to the season, during which Lee began the year 0-for-13, the shortstop seems to be bouncing back.
“AJ’s day-to-day is really, really good,” Vaughn said. “He was hitting like .150, but his quality at-bat percentage was still over 50 percent, so we knew there were good swings in there [and] we knew he was going to be solid.”
The shift in Lee’s momentum correlates with his return from injury. After he took a “funky turn” rounding first on a double against Louisiana Lafayette, the infielder left the game. He remained on Maryland’s bench for the next seven contests, rehabbing his ankle.
Lee singled in his first at-bat when he made his return on March 15 against No. 17 East Carolina, and continued his success in Maryland’s back-to-back midweeks against Elon. He went 3-for-6 against the Phoenix and reached bases seven times, including his first home run since February 23, 2018 against Army.
Though it has paid off, taking time off to recover was frustrating for Lee. It was the first time he had been kept from playing due to injury, but, according to the shortstop, it gave him a new perspective.
“[It] made me appreciate things a lot more,” Lee said. “I just feel a lot more relaxed, a lot more comfortable out there, and [I’m] just having fun and playing the game.”
With his more composed mindset, Lee has rebounded from his slump. In the eight games before injury, he hit .148 with a .314 on-base percentage and only two RBIs. Now, in the eight games since his return, he’s hitting .320 and reaching base 50 percent of the time. He’s also had seven RBIs since his return – more than three times as many as the first half of his season.
Vaughn’s also seen a vast improvement in Lee’s defense. After recording four errors in those first eight games, Lee has only one error since his return from injury.
That error, however, didn’t come while Lee was at his primary position. Prior to the Terps’ Saturday matchup against the Bluejays, Vaughn learned that center fielder Chris Alleyne injured his thumb. The second-year head coach turned to Lee, who had never started in the outfield, and explained the situation to the senior captain.
Lee told his coach to do what he had to do to win the game.
“You talk about a senior that’s unselfish,” Vaughn said. “[Lee’s] what that looks like, and that’s what we’re going to need moving forward.”
Lee’s unselfishness and maturity have both developed in the past year, Vaughn said. At the beginning of the fall, Lee not only stayed after practice an extra 30-to-40 minutes to field ground balls, but he encouraged others — specifically the younger players — to do the same.
Lee’s work ethic has “set the standard” of how the team works and “gets after it,” according to Vaughn, who added that it’s Lee’s demand that others follow suit that has really impressed him.
“There’s a lot to like about AJ and the way he’s going about his business,” Vaughn said. “[He’s] really showing these young pups what it takes to compete at this level … I’m proud as heck of him for that.”
Throughout his early-season highs and lows, one aspect of Lee’s game has remained constant: he gets on base.
Last season, Lee started all of the Terps’ 54 games, and while he batted only .232, he reached base almost 40 percent of the time. A speedy and dynamic base runner, Lee’s ability to get on base is one of the most important aspects of his game.
“A lot of people will look at it and see his batting average and see our record and think that he’s either not doing what he should be or what we’re not doing what we should be doing,” Vaughn said, explaining that it couldn’t be further from the truth.
For Lee, he’s just glad to be back. And for the team, which has lost three of its last four weekend series, it’ll be glad it has its senior shortstop heating up when conference play starts this weekend against Indiana.
“It’s definitely tough when you see your guys out there competing and you can’t really do anything to help them,” Lee said. “[But] I’m feeling pretty good now, and I’m excited to be back.”