Maryland shortstop Blake Schmit immediately started smiling, the notion of a bandwagon so new it still seemed unbelievable. But at every turn this week came reminders that what the Terrapins baseball team has accomplished over the past month doesn’t happen often in College Park.
There were interviews to be done, television cameras at practice and new fans to embrace, proof that a program without much of a tradition had finally found the spotlight.
“My Twitter feed is blowing up,” Schmit said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
This, though, presents a new sort of challenge for Maryland as it prepares to face Virginia on Saturday in the super regional round of the NCAA baseball tournament. Needing just two wins to reach the College World Series, the Terrapins are hopeful all this attention won’t change the approach that worked so well over the past month.
Maryland has reeled off 14 wins in its past 16 games, including last weekend’s impressive 3-0 run through the Columbia, S.C. regional, and the formula for success has been straightforward: Maryland’s starting pitching has been elite, its bullpen doesn’t lose leads and the enitre lineup has produced timely hits.
“When we struggled in the mid-season, we weren’t that effective with runners in scoring position,” Maryland Coach John Szefc said. “A month and a half ago that wasn’t happening for us and now it’s the type of stuff that is happening for us. I think our guys are just waiting for the next guy. Who’s it gonna be next? … It always feels like it’s somebody. When things are going good, that’s the way it is.”
Last weekend, Szefc turned “playing with house money” into a slogan. Celebratory dogpiles, he reminded Maryland this week, don’t come around all the time, especially for a program making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1971. But he doesn’t want them to build up this moment to be more than it is.
“Our guys are loose. It’s not like there’s a lot of pressure on us,” Szefc said. “Those guys are No. 1 in the country, and they’re playing at home. … I think it sets up well for us. It’s a shorter bus trip.”
Virginia’s pitchers allowed 20 home runs all season long, and four came when Maryland bested the Cavaliers, 7-6, last month in the ACC tournament at NewBridge Bank Park in Durham, N.C. Terrapins first baseman Lamonte Wade even hit two bombs that day, which also happened to be the first two of his season.
Some of Virginia’s players questioned whether those homeruns would have left the park at spacious Davenport Field. Cavaliers Coach Brian O’Connor scoffed at that notion, though.
“I don’t think any of them were fence-scrapers,” he said. “They were all hit pretty good. They’d all probably be out in our ballpark, too.”
But the Terrapins did not face Virginia’s dynamic pair of sophomore southpaws or closer Nick Howard in the ACC tournament. O’Connor had been saving top starters Nathan Kirby and sophomore Brandon Waddell that afternoon, while Maryland used ace Jake Stinnett.
Maryland has six lefties in its lineup, and how they fare against Kirby and Waddell, who will likely start Game 1 and Game 2 for Virginia this weekend, could sway this super regional.
“It’s not necessarily the powerhouse team or who has been there before,” O’Connor said. “It’s about who plays loose and gets after it and who gets hot. You can go on to win the national championship if you’re one of those teams that gets hot. That’s why I feel so good about our team. We played loose and confident and played some of our best baseball this weekend.”
Maryland also feels comfortable facing a familiar foe, “just because you have an idea of what you’re up against,” said Stinnett, who allowed three runs on 10 hits and struck out 10 Virginia batters over eight innings in the ACC tournament.
And though Virginia was ranked No. 1 during much of this season and enter the weekend as the highest remaining national seed left in the NCAA tournament, the manner in which the Cavaliers advanced past the regional round — by outscoring the opposition 22-3 in three games — is not indicative of how this season has gone.
Virginia played in 21 games decided by one run or in extra innings this year, the kind of scenario Maryland seems to have mastered in recent weeks.
“We need to keep our identity and not change ourselves just because we’re in the super regional,” Wade said. “Just do what got us to this point and we’ll be fine.”