Jake Stinnett had his first brush with the major leagues last year, shortly after his junior season ended with the Maryland baseball team. The Pittsburgh Pirates drafted the right-hander in the 29th round, and Stinnett was considering whether to begin the climb to the sport’s highest level.
Stinnett had been preparing for this decision by consulting with his family and Terrapins Coach John Szefc during much of last season, when big league clubs took a keener interest as he transitioned from the bullpen to the starting rotation. Szefc even drove to Cape Cod, Mass., where Stinnett was spending part of the summer, to discuss the matter in more detail.
“I just tried to put some things in perspective for him,” Szefc said. “I wasn’t trying to sandbag him into coming back. I really felt like if he came back with a plan and if [Terps pitching coach] Jimmy [Belanger] helped him the way he has and if we handled him the correct way, that things would work out for him and he would get a better chance to make it to the back end.”
At the start of this season, Stinnett was on the mound delivering the first pitch for the Terrapins, having spurned the Pirates’ offer of $70,000 to sign. The staff ace will get the ball again Friday afternoon when Maryland (36-21) faces Old Dominion (36-24) in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The No. 2 seed in the Columbia, S.C., Region is making its first NCAA appearance since 1971 and fourth in program history thanks in large part to Stinnett, whose 123 strikeouts lead the ACC and are two short of a season record in College Park. Stinnett’s draft stock also has risen significantly, with projections for him to go in the first round following a season that included Maryland's first no-hitter since 2008.
Stinnett (7-6, 2.60 ERA) led the conference in complete games (four) and innings (104) and was fifth in opponent batting average (.191). He has registered double-digit strikeouts in six of 15 starts and has yielded four earned runs with five walks over his last 24 innings.
“When it comes down to it, I just wanted another season here with these guys, these coaches and a chance to get closer to getting my degree,” Stinnett said. “I just thought it was the best thing for the team and the best thing for myself overall, and I couldn't be happier with my decision."
Stinnett (6 feet 4, 215 pounds) opened last season as the closer before moving into the weekend rotation with his first career start March 17 against Florida State. Along with Jimmy Reed, Stinnett was part of a formidable 1-2 combination until he flourished as the regular Friday starter this season.
“We have a lot of confidence in Jake,” sophomore catcher Kevin Martir said. “Even when he’s off, he’s still going out there and battling. Whenever he has the ball in his hand, we know it’s going to be a good game.”
Stinnett, who started at third base as a freshman, was part of a staff that helped Maryland set a program record for victories. The Terrapins’ 15 wins in the ACC also equaled a school record that has stood since 1970.
Maryland enters the NCAA tournament with an 11-2 record this month that includes two wins in the ACC tournament. The Terrapins advanced to their first ACC title game since 1976 after dispatching third-ranked Virginia, 7-6, and then-No. 4 Florida State, 5-3, to extend their winning streak to 11, matching the second longest in program history.
“This is what you play for right here,” Stinnett said. “This program has just taken big leaps since I’ve been here. I’ve always had faith in the team and always thought we had talent every single year and always thought we were going to make the tournament. We fell a little bit short every year, but we finally did it this year, and it just feels awesome.”