Preseason Countdown #1: Michigan State Series Preview

Maryland opens up the 2021 season Friday evening when it travels south to Greenville, South Carolina, to take on the Michigan State Spartans. The beginning of an unprecedented season sends the Terps immediately into battle against the Big Ten, as the schedule features 44 games in 13 series of conference-only play.

The Terps enter this season after having a very optimistic 2020 despite the early cancellation. They finished with a 10-5 record, including a 6-1 start and winning all but one series. There was plenty to look forward to with last year’s Terps squad, as the program had brought in a recruitment class full of star-level talent, including now-sophomores Bobby Zmarzlak, Tucker Flint, Troy Schreffler Jr., Sam Bello, and Nick Dean.

This season, Maryland brought in yet another talent-filled recruitment class, featuring 2020 MLB Draft prospect RHP Jason Savacool, who comes in as the Sunday starter for this opening series.

Overall, Maryland boasts a very strong rotation heading into 2021 with redshirt sophomore Sean Burke leading the way after a fantastic collegiate debut in 2020. Next up comes senior Sean Fisher, who had a transformative junior year where he moved from the bullpen to the Friday starter spot. With sophomore Connor Staine likely going to the bullpen after his start in game two Saturday, Savacool rounds out the potential weekly three-man rotation.

At the plate, Maryland brings a very formidable lineup with them into the new season with junior Maxwell Costes headlining the pack. After leading the Big Ten with a 1.370 on-base plus slugging percentage and slugging four home runs, Costes earned a spot on the watch list for the 2021 USA Baseball Golden Spikes Award. Costes is surrounded by strong bats in the forms of senior Randy Bednar and the aforementioned sophomores Zmarzlak, Schreffler, and Flint.

Michigan State enters the season opener ranked near the bottom of many publications’ preseason Big Ten polls, but their lineup is certainly capable of making noise, as three of their everyday starters had OPS’s over .900.

However, the Spartans’ biggest strength comes from their pitching. While their Friday starter, senior Sam Benschoter, recorded a 6.87 earned-run average, their Saturday starter, redshirt junior Mason Erla, earned preseason pomp after a 1.04-ERA campaign in 2020. Not only did the righty record a stellar ERA, but he was a strikeout machine for the Spartans, striking out 42 batters while walking six.

The last time these two teams met was in 2018 when the Terps took two of three games from the Spartans. One of those wins was an 8-2 beatdown that featured a pitching gem from Hunter Parsons, who is currently in the New York Mets’ minor-league system.

Historically, Maryland has played very well against Michigan State ever since they joined the Big Ten, owning an 8-3 record against the Spartans.

Michigan State (0-0)

Last Season

The Spartans finished the shortened 2020 season with a 9-6 record and ended up right in the middle of the Big Ten standings. They played 12 of those games at Fluor Field (8-4 in those), so they come into this opening series with some winning experience in this stadium. As mentioned above, their pitching was their biggest strength in 2020, recording a 3.35 ERA and 1.35 walks plus hits per inning. On the other hand, the Spartans’ hitters mostly struggled outside of their top three bats, slashing .240/.337/.344 with three total home runs.

This Season

As mentioned earlier, the expectations for this Spartans squad aren’t too high according to many preseason polls. According to’s projected Big Ten standings, Michigan State is expected to finish 11th, only ahead of Northwestern and Penn State. However, projections are just that — projections. With a much-improved rotation over the past couple of seasons, the Spartans greatest strength is the team’s pitching, and a pitcher like Mason Erla could easily stunt Maryland’s powerful bats.

Hitters to Watch

There were three Michigan State bats that finished the 15 games of 2020 with OPS’s greater than .900, but none were better senior Bailey Peterson, who was named a Big Ten preseason player to watch. In 2020, Peterson slashed .441/.528/.542. There was a zero in the home run column on Peterson’s stat line, but while only five of his 26 hits were of the extra-base variety, he still presents a sizable threat at the plate.

Pitchers to Watch

The easy choice for a pitcher to watch on the Spartans is Mason Erla, who had a tremendous 42-6 K/BB ratio in his four starts last year. However, while senior Jarrett Olson isn’t confirmed as a starter this weekend, he comes in as Michigan State’s second-best starter stats-wise. He’s not a strikeout machine like Erla, but in four starts, the senior recorded a 2.03 ERA while limiting opposing batters to a .149 average.

Probable Starting Pitching Matchup

Friday, 6:30 p.m. ET

R-So. RHP Sean Burke (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. Sr. RHP Sam Benschoter (0-0, 0.00 ERA)

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After spending his shortened redshirt freshman season as the Saturday starter, Sean Burke will be taking the next step up in his career, earning not just the Friday rotation spot but the honor of being Maryland’s Opening Day starter. Leading the Terps in strikeouts just a year ago with 35, Burke will be making his debut with lots of improvement in his pitching arsenal.

During a preseason media session last Monday, Coach Rob Vaughn had high praise for the righty.

“His secondary stuff has gotten much better,” said Vaughn. “He had a wrinkle he could throw for a strike last year when he needed to get guys off his fastball. But, he’s throwing two legit breaking balls right now. He’s got four pitches that he can throw in any count.”

As for Sam Benschoter, the senior will be taking the ball during Friday’s opener after being transformed into a starter during the 2020 season. Although he recorded a 6.87 ERA in four starts, he boasted a strong K/BB with 30 strikeouts and 12 walks, showing tons of improvement from the 31-28 ratio he owned between 2018 and 2019.

Probable Starting Pitching Matchup

Saturday, Game 1, 4:30 p.m. ET

Sr. RHP Sean Fisher (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. R-Jr. RHP Mason Erla (0-0, 0.00 ERA)


With Burke starting Friday, Sean Fisher will likely be bumped down to the Saturday starter spot for now after being the Friday starter for his four starts of 2020. The southpaw didn’t have the greatest stats, recording a 5.66 ERA in 2020, but he did show that he was able to seamlessly turn into a starter after coming out of the bullpen in his freshman and sophomore years. Now, with less pressure as the series opener every weekend, Fisher has a great opportunity to keep trending upwards.

Mason Erla has far and away been the pitching star for Michigan State, and it may be ad nauseam at this point, but he is likely going to strike out a lot of Terps during his Saturday start. There is very little — if any — criticism about the redshirt junior’s stuff, and a matchup with Fisher should set the stage for a great pitchers duel.

Probable Starting Pitching Matchup

Saturday, Game 2, 7:30 p.m. ET

So. RHP Connor Staine (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. TBD

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Sophomore Connor Staine will be making his debut as a starter during game two of Saturday’s doubleheader, potentially setting him up for future starts in the four additional four-game weekends Maryland has on the calendar. Through 10 1/3 innings of relief in 2020, Staine was one of Maryland’s better bullpen arms, recording a 2.61 ERA. However, the strikeout numbers weren’t eye-popping while the 20 combined hits and walks he allowed imply that he may have benefited from the defense behind him.

While he has been given the starting spot for game two, it’s more likely than not that he’ll only pitch a couple innings in order to allow other new arms to get reps.

Probable Starting Pitching Matchup

Sunday, 1:30 p.m. ET

Fr. RHP Jason Savacool (0-0, 0.00 ERA) vs. TBD


The highly-anticipated collegiate debut of Jason Savacool will take place Sunday afternoon, and it could very well be the beginning of a very strong Maryland career for the New York native, who was ranked the second-best overall recruit out of the state, per Perfect Game. Had the 2020 MLB Draft been more than five rounds, Savacool likely would be in a major-league team’s system as he was No. 156 on MLB Pipeline’s list of top draft prospects.

Pitching against a rather weak Michigan State lineup, Savacool has a really good chance to start his career off with a gem.