Last November, Maryland Baseball Network’s Dylan Sinn profiled Mark DiLuia, who had just signed to pitch for the Terrapins. A year later, Sinn sat down with DiLuia as the freshman prepares for his first season of college baseball.
Mark DiLuia is late. The freshman and I had planned to meet so we could talk about his transition from being one of the best high school pitchers in Illinois last year to one of 10 members of Maryland baseball’s 2017 recruiting class.
Before our scheduled meeting time, DiLuia (pronounced De-LU-ya) lets me know, while apologizing earnestly, that the team’s practice longer than expected, so he won’t be able to make it on time. When he arrives later, he extends a giant hand, grasps mine firmly, and apologizes again. I assure him it’s not a problem. He never mentions that it is birthday.
“He’s kind of got that, I hate to use this comparison, but that Derek Jeter quality of, you just kind of look at the guy and are like, ‘Man, that kid’s a winner,’” Corey Muscara, Maryland’s pitching coach, said of DiLuia. “The way he stands, the way he carries himself, the way he talks, the way he listens, how he learns. He’s just very mature beyond his years. More than the stuff and the body that’s what’s impressed me the most [about him].”
To be clear, DiLuia’s “stuff” is impressive, as well. He has a fastball, change-up and slider in his repertoire, all three of which he can throw for strikes. The lanky 6-foot-3 right-hander’s fastball has touched 90 mph in fall workouts, which led Prep Baseball Report to rank him the No. 11 high school player in Illinois just before his senior season at Marian Catholic High School.
During that senior season, DiLuia planned to work on the command of his pitches, a goal he says he accomplished.
“All around I felt I was a complete better pitcher [compared to my junior year],” DiLuia said. “I could throw any pitch I wanted in any count and I just felt all around like more of a pitcher than my junior year, when I was more of a thrower.”
The improvements paid off as the Homewood, Illinois native went 7-1 with a 1.68 ERA and Marian Catholic reached the 3A state championship game. DiLuia pitched his team to the title game with a complete-game 4-3 victory over the 30-9 Champaign Central in the semifinal.
His performance as a senior was good enough that the Texas Rangers selected him in the 38th round of the 2017 MLB Draft. DiLuia had signed to attend Maryland in November 2016 and he decided to go to college instead of entering the professional ranks. He arrived in College Park in August after a turbulent summer for the Maryland baseball program.
In mid-June, then-Head Coach John Szefc left Maryland to take the same position at Virginia Tech, and took Pitching Coach Ryan Fecteau with him. Fecteau was one of the coaches who had recruited DiLuia to the Terps, and his departure left the incoming pitcher feeling a little uneasy about the change.
“It was definitely a little nervous at one point because I was like, ‘Man if [then-assistant coach Rob] Vaughn’s not coming back, then I won’t know anyone on the coaching staff,’” said DiLuia, who got the news of the coaching change the same day he had beaten Champaign Central.
The uneasiness was allayed somewhat when DiLuia found out Vaughn would step into Szefc’s role as the head coach, and assuaged even more after he talked to Muscara, Fecteau’s replacement, in early July.
“Definitely was a sigh of relief when I found out Coach Vaughn would be back here,” he said. “After I talked to Coach Muscara on the phone for the first time, I was pretty excited to get the ball rolling. He seemed like he was pretty amped up and he seemed like he knows what he’s doing.”
Once he saw his new protégé pitch, Muscara was excited too.
“I think the thing that impresses me the most is his tempo and timing,” the former St. John’s coach said. “The other day at practice he was 86-90 [mph] and he hadn’t thrown all summer, so we’re still building him up, and it’s easy. So when you see a kid who’s throwing the ball that easy and can command the ball, you know there’s a lot more in the tank. He’s going to be a kid that throws consistently in the low 90’s, he might even touch the mid-90’s while he’s here.”
Muscara’s comments are somewhat at odds with how DiLuia views his own velocity, which he says he has struggled to increase over the last several years.
“The last couple of years I’ve been kind of upset with myself, I haven’t really seen a big jump in velocity, but I just keep telling myself, keep working harder, keep messing around with different things and the velocity will come,” DiLuia said.
One aspect of the freshman’s quest to throw harder has been an attempt to put on weight through diet and strength training.
“More mass equals gas, as Coach Muscara says,” DiLuia said, laughing.
Despite his impressive performance in fall workouts so far, he is not sure what is role on the pitching staff will be when the season starts in February. He isn’t too concerned about it, though; he just wants to help the team.
“Whatever it is, Sunday guy, weekday starter, coming in in relief, any opportunity I get to throw, I’ll be happy with, and I’ll make the most of it whenever I get the chance,” he said. “In the end of the day it’s all about getting wins and whatever I can do or whatever the team can do to get one more on the ‘W’ side I’ll be more than happy with.”
Tayler Stiles, Taylor Bloom and Ryan Selmer. These three pitchers are integral pieces on a Maryland pitching staff that has helped the Terrapins to a 34-19 record this season.
But this trio is bound by more than the fact that they pitch for Maryland. All three hurlers were all coached, at some point, by Matthew Selmer, Ryan’s father. The elder Selmer, who is currently the head coach at Indian Creek High School, specializes in pitching mechanics, and began working with each of the three current Terps at different stages of their playing careers.
Senior left-hander Tayler Stiles joined Matthew Selmer’s 12U Kingston Royals team and was immediately the best power hitter and power pitcher on the team, according to Matthew Selmer.
“The coaching staff knew [Stiles] would make it to college ball without a doubt, but the question was whether he would make it because of the bat or the arm,” Matthew Selmer said. “As I started working with him, it became evident his arm would carry him.”
Stiles only played under Matthew Selmer through 16U, but he still seeks his former coach out for workouts and lessons every offseason, and the two still speak regularly to talk pitching.
“I can always look to him and ask for advice if I am struggling,” Stiles said. “He has basically taught me everything I know as far as the foundation of my mechanics and I probably would not be where I am without him.”
Stiles and Matthew Selmer worked on more than just pitching mechanics. The southpaw had a “bit of an attitude problem” when he first started playing for the Kingston Royals, which the coach addressed immediately.
“Stiles was always a fiery competitor and he hated it when things didn’t go his way,” his coach said. “I am one of those old-school guys when it comes to the discipline side. Whenever he pushed my buttons, I wouldn’t hesitate to pull him out of the games, but he responded well, learned how to control himself and is a better all-around baseball player for it.”
Taylor Bloom first started working with Matthew Selmer when he began his career at Riverdale Baptist High School, where Selmer was a coach. The right-hander was already “polished” because of his previous work with pitching instructors, according to Selmer, but still had room to improve.
“I videotaped Bloom’s delivery when we started working together to address some things he could clean up, but he was always a very mechanically sound pitcher,” he said. “Having him at Riverdale Baptist was a pleasure because we knew we could give him the ball and he’d get the job done.”
Bloom posted an 8-1 record with 86 strikeouts and a 0.89 ERA as a senior at Riverdale Baptist. He started in the bullpen when he got to Maryland before carving out a role as the team’s main Saturday starter in 2016, leading the team in ERA and walks per nine innings.
“I owe a lot of what I have been able to do [at Maryland] to Coach [Selmer],” Bloom said. “He has been with me every step of the way since high school, through years of summer ball, and now he’s still just a text or phone call away if I need help.”
After a breakout 2016, Bloom has struggled during parts of the 2017 season. The junior right-hander went through a slump at the end of March into early April, and Matthew Selmer was in touch with him to help guide him through it.
“I typically try to stay in the background during the season because these players have their own pitching coaches on their teams, but I couldn’t help it during Bloom’s recent struggles,” Matthew Selmer said. “I watched his game tape from his start against Nebraska for hours and reached out to him with some tips.”
Matthew Selmer maintains a close relationship with the players he has coached, but none closer than his relationship with his son Ryan.
Ryan’s older brother, Matthew Jr., was always “the more talented one,” according to their father. While Matthew Jr. was the star shortstop and pitcher, Ryan was essentially a utility player, filling in wherever he was needed.
The elder Selmer never prioritized Ryan over other players, saying that “he had to work for everything he earned.” Because of this Ryan Selmer took nothing for granted on the field and embraced his father’s tough love.
“Being the coach’s son was never easy,” Ryan Selmer said, “but I am grateful for everything he has done for me. Sometimes you see coaches just play their sons because they’re their sons, but he made me work for everything. I can’t tell you how many times he benched me, but I am a lot better for it.”
He was “slow and uncoordinated,” according to his father, but things quickly changed when he hit his growth spurt. He was a late bloomer and sprang up to 6-foot-8 during his high school years at Riverdale Baptist, eventually earning his spot on the mound.
“It was fun to watch Ryan develop from a father’s perspective and a coach’s perspective,” Matthew Selmer said. “He didn’t really have any schools after him until a scout came to watch someone else from that Riverdale team and said ‘why is there a 6-foot-8 pitcher throwing 90 [mph] that I didn’t know about?’ From that point, he ended up at Maryland and I couldn’t be more proud of the player he has become.”
What the elder Selmer praises most about his son, however, isn’t what he does on the mound. Ryan has the ability to be light-hearted and brighten the mood around the dugout while still being able to flip the switch when it is time to compete.
“Ryan never had an issue having fun in the dugout, but sometimes he got a little carried away,” Matthew Selmer said. “He eventually found that balance and it has been a joy to see his evolution as a teammate. I believe every dugout needs a Ryan Selmer or two to help maintain a positive attitude.”
Bloom, Stiles and Ryan Selmer have been fixtures on the Maryland pitching staff over the last three seasons. Ryan Selmer has been the team’s most reliable reliever, leading the team with seven saves this season. Bloom has been a staple in the weekend rotation for the past two years, pitching to a 3.34 ERA in 177.2 innings. Stiles has been able to fill in any role necessary, making appearances out of the bullpen and filling in as a spot starter. Matthew Selmer has enjoyed every bit of it.
“Sometimes people think it is the pitchers who are lucky to have knowledgeable pitching instructors, but it is the pitching instructors – like myself – who are lucky to come across talent,” he said. “I lucked into coaching three very talented pitchers, and it is great to see them all having success on the field as teammates at Maryland.”
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.
When left-hander Andrew Miller retired Michigan State second baseman Dan Durkin for the last out of Sunday’s doubleheader, the Maryland Terrapins not only clinched their fifth sweep of the season, but they improved to 18-1 at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium.
Maryland (28-11, 12-3 Big Ten) currently sits atop the Big Ten standings, in large part due to its success at home. In their three conference series’ in College Park this season, the Terps swept Penn State and Michigan State, and took two of three from then-No. 18 Michigan.
In 2014 and 2015 — the last two seasons Maryland reached the NCAA Super Regionals — the team went 21-7 and 16-9 at home, respectively. With just five home games left this season, the Terps have clinched a home-record finish with single-digit losses in College Park for the third time in the last four years. Currently, Maryland is tied for the third best home record in the country.
After finishing 15-16 away from Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium last season — which includes neutral site games — Maryland is 10-10 in such contests this season. But head coach John Szefc believes the difference between his team’s home and away record isn’t because they necessarily struggle away from College Park.
“I don’t think we play bad on the road, it’s just that the results have been a little bit different,” he said. “The home team usually wins 70 percent of the time in college baseball.”
This statistic is consistent with the Terps’ 70-28 record — 71 percent — in College Park over the past four seasons. During this span, Maryland owns a .551 record away from Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium.
Maryland’s tough away schedule is a factor in why the team can’t duplicate its home record on the road. Of the Terps’ 10 losses away from home, seven have come against teams ranked in the top 40 in RPI. The Terps lost a game during opening weekend to Louisville (RPI 6) in Clearwater, Florida, were swept by LSU (RPI 13) in Baton Rouge, lost two of three at Nebraska (RPI 38) and dropped a midweek game at North Carolina (RPI 3). The Terps are currently ranked 25th in RPI.
At home, eight of the Terps 18 wins have come against teams outside the top 200 in RPI — Penn State, Princeton, Saint Joseph’s and Richmond. Overall, Maryland has the 82nd toughest schedule of 299 teams. Even though the Terps’ home schedule has been easier on paper than on the road, there appears to be an extra energy Maryland has when it plays at home, to which Szefc attributes to his “veteran squad.” The numbers led credence to the affect it has on the Maryland weekend rotation.
For the second consecutive weekend at home, Maryland’s starters — Brian Shaffer, Tyler Blohm and Taylor Bloom — all lasted at least six innings. As a team, Maryland allowed just 11 runs in their last six home games against Penn State and Michigan State.
Altogether, that makes the Maryland weekend starters a combined 12-1 with a 1.85 ERA in 102 innings at home. The same trio is 5-6 with a 3.86 ERA in 72.2 innings when pitching on the road.
Bloom says that College Park has become a difficult location to play at as a visiting team, helping not only the pitching staff, but the team as a whole.
“I think we’re a really tough place to play just because of the energy we have in the dugout,” Bloom said. “We just supply the energy ourselves and I think it’s just really hard for teams to come in here and beat us.”
Maryland’s energy in the dugout was present for both games of Sunday’s doubleheader, which featured dancing from senior infielder Pat Hisle, loud “U-S-A” chants after drawn walks and abrupt cheers during a streak of 12 straight balls thrown by Spartan pitchers.
“You have to really respect [the bench] because they’re not sitting there pouting because they’re not playing,” Szefc said. “They’re trying to get involved and help the group win. You talk about why you have that kind of success, well that has something to do with it.”
Not only has the weekend pitching flourished at home, but the offense has followed their lead. Maryland’s bats average more runs, hits, doubles and home runs per game at home than on the road.
Even on the base paths, the Terrapins show more aggressiveness on their own turf. The team is 34-for-45 (76 percent) in stolen base attempts in away games and 48-for-53 (91 percent) in College Park.
“Every day we’re here we bring a lot of energy. Our guys just do a good job of battling for nine innings every time we’re out here and we expect to win every time, especially at home,” outfielder Zach Jancarski said. “It definitely gives our guys a confident boost before the game even starts and I think that’s important, too.”
The Terps are currently on an eight-game road trip and won’t play in College Park again until May 9. In its five remaining home games, Maryland will look to continue making Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium a tough and unenjoyable location for any opponent to win ballgames, says Szefc.
“People don’t want to come in here and play,” Szefc said. “There’s some places we go to that I don’t want to go play at. I think [Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium] is becoming one of those kind of places for opposing teams.”
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.
After Maryland third baseman AJ Lee hit a two-run homer in the sixth inning Sunday against Penn State, his teammates joked about his power in the dugout.
According to the sophomore, his teammates poked fun at him saying, “You won’t hit another one,” to which Lee responded with, “We’ll just see what happens.”
Two innings later with Maryland up 13-2, Nittany Lions right-hander Eric Mock delivered a 2-0 fastball to Lee, who put another good swing on the ball. In almost exactly the same spot as the first — just to the left of the towering center field batter’s eye — Lee hit his second home run of the day to extend the Terps’ already huge lead.
“When I got back in the dugout, they were all shocked,” Lee said. “They couldn’t believe it.”
They were so surprised, in fact, they decided to give Lee the silent treatment, pretending like nothing had happened, as if the infielder hadn’t just hit his second homer of the day and fourth of the year.
“Well they like to say I don’t have a lot of power, that I’m more of a speed guy just to get on base and use my legs,” Lee said, smiling. “So when I hit a couple they like to say it was a fluke or it was wind-aided or something like that. I tried to play it off like people weren’t giving it to me, but it was fun.”
Lee, who hit in the nine-spot all weekend, led a bottom of the order that helped the Terps to a 4-1 record last week, including a win over West Virginia and a three-game sweep of Penn State.
With Maryland down 4-0 in the sixth inning against West Virginia in College Park on Tuesday, the bottom of the order stepped up to lead the Terps’ rally. Hitting in the seven-hole, left fielder Madison Nickens hit a two-run shot far over the wall in right field to cut the deficit in half.
The Mountaineers answered back with a run in the top of the seventh, but Danny Maynard — who entered the game in the fifth inning in the last spot in the lineup — homered off the light pole in left-center to leadoff the bottom half of the frame, again cutting the deficit to two. After the middle of the order tied the game, Nickens lined a bases-loaded single through the left side of the infield, driving in two to give the Terps a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
In the win, Maryland’s bottom of the order — the seven through nine spots — drove in four of the team’s seven runs, including the winning tally. This offensive production carried over into the weekend against Penn State, predominantly in the series finale.
Nickens, Nick Cieri and Lee started Sunday in the seven, eight and nine spots, respectively, to round out the Terps lineup, which looked to complete the sweep.
The trio at the bottom of the order went 8-for-12, leading the team with six RBIs and nine runs scored in Maryland’s season-high 19-hit performance.
“[That’s] what drives our offense,” said right fielder Marty Costes, who recorded four hits and five RBIs Sunday in his usual three-spot. “We’ve been an offense that predicates ourselves on being deep one through nine and if our bottom of the order can do that then it’ll force a lot of teams to rethink their strategy.”
Rounding out the bottom of the lineup was Lee, who like Costes, recorded four hits and five RBIs. While he hit two home runs to double his season total, head coach John Szefc was more impressed by another at-bat.
Maryland led 5-1 in the third inning when right-hander Dakota Forsyth recorded the first two outs of the inning. After giving up runs in each of the first two frames, the Nittany Lions looked to have a shutdown 1-2-3 inning.
But with two outs, the bottom of the order came up starting with Nickens, who drew a 3-2 walk. Cieri singled on the very next pitch, drawing Lee into the box. After battling and working the count to 2-2, the sophomore third baseman singled up the middle on the seventh pitch of the at-bat, collecting the two-out RBI.
“That’s a dagger — a mental dagger to them,” Szefc said. “They think they’re getting out of that inning and then all of a sudden the bottom of our lineup is forcing them to struggle more.”
After his 4-for-4 day, Lee’s batting average climbed above .300 through 35 games this season, much to the pleasure of Szefc.
“I hope it’s a really good step in the right direction,” Szefc said. “Sometimes it takes a while for guys to get comfortable and he’s playing a new position. There’s a lot of [work with the coaches] that goes into that.”
With strong production coming from so far deep in the Terps lineup, Costes has high expectations for the rest of the season.
“If we can get that performance out of him consistently throughout the rest of the year,” he said, “I don’t see a team that can beat us.”
In the midst of three consecutive weekends on the road to start the season, Madison Nickens and Will Watson will reunite with friends, family and former teammates during Maryland’s upcoming series against LSU.
Even though the Terrapins will spend the weekend more than 1,000 miles away from College Park, LSU’s Alex Box Stadium will play host to a homecoming for the two Louisiana-native outfielders.
Nickens grew up in Gonzales, La., just 35 minutes south of Baton Rouge, and Watson hails from Monroe, La., about three and a half hours to the north. But the two outfielders aren’t just linked by their home state. The two played together for one season at LSU-Eunice, a junior college located 90 minutes west of Baton Rouge. That Bengals team went 49-10 en route to a 2015 NJCAA National Championship.
Click on the stars in the map for more information.
But Nickens and Watson won’t be the only members of that National Championship team to play at Skip Bertram Field this weekend. Former Bengals Nick Coomes and Jordan Romero both transferred from LSU-Eunice down Route 190 to LSU following the 2015 season.
“We’re excited to see each other,” Watson said. “We went through a lot in junior college. We won a National Championship together so obviously it’s going to be good to see them and play against them.”
Coomes has played in three of the Tigers’ four games, collecting one hit, while Romero has yet to see action.
Listen to Madison Nickens and Will Watson (at the 34-minute mark) talk about returning to Louisiana on the Maryland Baseball Network Podcast.
Nickens never considered joining Coomes and Romero to go to LSU. He was initially recruited to Maryland head coach John Szefc, who has ties in Louisiana after his tenure as the head assistant coach at Louisiana-Lafayette from 2003-2008.
On a visit to Maryland, former-player and now student assistant coach Anthony Papio hosted Nickens, who said he felt he had found himself a second home in College Park.
“You come on a visit up here [and you] get the feeling of a blue-collar atmosphere and it’s just kind of how I’ve grown up,” Nickens said. “We’re really a bunch of grinders here.”
While Nickens left the Bengals for the Terps, Watson remained with LSU-Eunice through the 2016 season and hit .312 with 11 doubles, four home runs, 21 stolen bases and 40 RBIs. That Bengals team was ranked first throughout most of the regular season, finishing with a 51-6 record, but falling just short of a second-straight title.
Watson’s breakout season caught the attention of the Maryland coaching staff, who then began to recruit him. During that time, Nickens was having a strong season of his own in College Park. He started 54 games for the Terps as junior, hitting .260 with eight home runs and 28 RBIs. Watson, who became intrigued by his former-teammate’s success, began asking Nickens about the program.
“[Nickens] didn’t have a bad word to say about it,” Watson said. “Once I got here I kind of saw what the coaches were like during practice and during the games and really got to see how they interact with the players. I really noticed this perfect place for me to fit in.”
Watson’s transition from junior college proved to be successful in his first series as a Terrapin. Last weekend in the Clearwater Tournament, the outfielder started two of the three games, collecting two hits, two walks and a stolen base.
“He’s a quiet guy, but he’s a confident guy,” Szefc said. “He certainly has enough skill to compete at the level we’re asking him to and I think he just fit right in and did his thing.”
Nickens and Watson have both found a second home in Maryland, but this weekend, the pair of outfielders will return to their birthplace where familiar faces will be waiting.
“A lot of my friends go [to LSU] so I know they’re excited to come see me play,” Watson said. “All my family is coming so it’s a big deal for me to just to get there and then try to perform at my highest level in front of a big crowd.”
Both have played at Alex Box Stadium before, during various high school games and showcases growing up. Both, too, grew up as LSU fans.
“Any Louisiana boy would be lying if he said he didn’t want to be an LSU Tiger when he was younger,” Nickens said on the MBN Podcast. “But that’s when I’m a little kid; that’s who I grew up watching.”
Alex Box Stadium, which set then-record of 12,373 fans during the 2013 season-opening game against Maryland, could yield upwards of 10,000 people this weekend. The field is surrounded on all sides by fan seating, creating an atmosphere that Szefc is looking forward to testing his team in.
“Obviously if we want to do well in the postseason, the NCAA tournament, we try to put our guys in that atmosphere as much as we can,” Szefc said. “Playing there is definitely that kind of atmosphere.”
While Watson and Nickens are excited to reconnect with friends and family during their time down to Baton Rouge, they both recognize the tough test the team faces in not only playing at Alex Box Stadium, but against an LSU team that is ranked No. 5 by D1Baseball.com.
“This is a big series for us and definitely one that we need to hit strong in to come away with a big series win down there in Baton Rouge,” Watson said. “It’s going to be fun playing in front of friends and family, but obviously we have some work to do.”