As unnerving as it should've been to face college pitching for the first time, nothing about standing in the batter's box this season against Atlantic Coast Conference pitchers made Maryland's Brandon Lowe flinch.
A team-best .339 batting average, which also is third in the ACC, demonstrates Lowe's precocious nature at the plate. Not bad for a redshirt freshman who will lead Maryland into Charlottesville this weekend for a best-of-three NCAA tournament Super Regional against Virginia (47-13). Maryland is coming off a stunning victory last weekend in the Columbia, S.C., regional, which included two wins against home-standing regional top-seed South Carolina.
Even better considering he's a redshirt freshman coming off a devastating knee injury. That was the most daunting obstacle to becoming the player he knew he could be when he first got to Maryland (39-21) in fall 2012 from Nansemond River High in Suffolk.
"I was done," said Lowe of the torn anterior cruciate ligament he suffered in his left knee in February last year — two days before Maryland hit the road for Baton Rouge, La., and its '13 season-opening series at then-No. 10 Louisiana State. "It was a pretty rough time."
In the final stages of his rehab from the knee injury, Lowe had to get past the psychological barrier created by "the pop" — the stomach-turning sound he heard in practice when he tried to reverse direction to field a ground ball up the middle at second base after the ball glanced off the pitcher's glove.
Lowe planted a foot to move back toward the ball, but the foot stayed rooted in the ground. His knee was toast.
"That was really the toughest part — getting back and doing the initial thing that tore it," said Lowe, who also leads Maryland in slugging percentage (.462) and on-base percentage (.462; second in ACC). "It was more of a mental block. I mean, you're out for eight months because you did this one little thing. It took me a week or two once I got the brace on to realize, 'Hey, you're able to do all this.'"
Lowe admits there were days during his recovery when he'd stand in a batting cage wondering what had happened to his swing, but he'd quickly remind himself he hadn't swung a bat in more than seven months. Maryland coach John Szefc knew Lowe would be productive, but even he's amazed by how much Lowe has progressed.
"To be honest, if he was healthy last year, he would've played every day for us," Szefc said.
"If you watch him operate on a day-to-day basis, watch his (batting practice) and watch his strike-zone discipline, he was going to have success. It was just a matter of how much, how soon really. It wasn't a question of if. It was just when. He's probably jumped the gun on it a little bit, but that's what good hitters do."
Lowe earned third-team All-ACC honors while starting 50 games at second base, where he's committed just seven errors in 190 chances, and hitting primarily third in Maryland's batting order. He was one of only six true freshmen or redshirt freshmen to earn a spot on the All-ACC first, second or third teams.
He was also one of seven ACC players, including U.Va. shortstop Daniel Pinero, to be honored by Louisville Slugger as a freshman All-American.
Though Lowe didn't get the chance to do much of anything last season other than observe his teammates, he was still able to quickly adjust to the increased velocity of college pitchers across the board, while staying disciplined in his approach as a hitter. He's struck out 19 times in 171 at-bats, but more impressive are the 33 walks he's accrued in 204 plate appearances.
"I kind of looked at the big picture of it all," said Lowe regarding last season. "I just kind of looked at it like, "All right, I'm missing this season, but don't let this season go to waste. Learn what you can. Get stronger. Do all the things that are going to help you in the future. Don't waste what you have.' I learned everything that I could. It worked out pretty well."
Lowe hasn't faced North Carolina State's Carlos Rodon, whom Maryland lit up in a 10-0 win in March, U.Va.'s Nick Howard, Miami's Chris Diaz (co-ACC pitcher of the year with U.Va.'s Nathan Kirby) or Andrew Suarez or Clemson's Daniel Gossett — all of whom are rated among Baseball America's top 130 high school or college players this year.
Yet, Lowe is still one of the primary reasons Maryland has been able to go on a 14-3 run in its last 17 games since getting swept in late April at Boston College (22-33). Since the start of the postseason, which has included a surprising run to the ACC tournament title game and last weekend's regional win in Columbia, Lowe has hit .308 (8-for-26).
"We always knew how good we were," said Lowe, a 5-foot-10, 165-pound Suffolk native who has one home run and 39 RBI this season. "We just hadn't put the remaining puzzle pieces together. It clicked against South Carolina, and we were confident in everything we were doing. I'm sure you could go one through nine in our lineup and every single person is confident that the person hitting ahead of them or behind them is not going to feel like all the pressure is on them. Our attitude has kind of made everybody else play better around us."
Wood can be reached by phone at 757-247-4642.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun