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Maryland players, roommates and now, rivals: Brandon Lowe and Adam Kolarek meet in World Series

The Tampa Bay Rays' Brandon Lowe, left, and the Los Angeles Dodgers' Adam Kolarek are the first two Maryland products to meet in the World Series.
The Tampa Bay Rays' Brandon Lowe, left, and the Los Angeles Dodgers' Adam Kolarek are the first two Maryland products to meet in the World Series. (Getty Images)

Last summer, when the goal of leading the Tampa Bay Rays to a World Series title was a shared one, Adam Kolarek’s dad drove him and Brandon Lowe to a baseball field.

Frank Kolarek, a Catonsville native, was in town to catch the two University of Maryland products and their team take on the New York Yankees. Although they weren’t contemporaries in College Park, the younger Kolarek and Lowe roomed together in Florida, and with Kolarek in the passenger seat and Lowe in the back, Kolarek’s dad gave them a ride to Tropicana Field.

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“As a dad, it’s been a lifetime of this,” Frank Kolarek said. “It’s like taking Adam and one of his buddies to the ballpark, but it just so happens that it’s Brandon and it’s the big leagues.”

The roommates were split when Kolarek was dealt to the Los Angeles Dodgers at last year’s trade deadline, but 16 months later, Lowe’s Rays and Kolarek’s Dodgers are facing off in the World Series, marking the first time since 1969 a Terp has reached the Fall Classic. It’s only the second time that two Maryland alums have been in the same World Series, but in 1917, Fred Anderson and Buck Herzog were both members of the New York Giants. With Kolarek and Lowe on opposing teams, one is guaranteed to be the first Terp to win a World Series in more than 50 years.

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Entering Friday’s Game 3, the series is tied at a game apiece, with Lowe’s slump-breaking pair of opposite-field home runs in Game 2 helping Tampa Bay even the series. Kolarek, a left-handed reliever, has yet to make an appearance for Los Angeles.

“It’s great for our program,” Maryland baseball coach Rob Vaughn said. “It’s great recognition when they talk about Terp alums in the World Series. All that stuff’s really good, but more important, I’m just super thrilled for those two individuals.”

Vaughn’s first year in College Park as an assistant coach coincided with Lowe’s freshman season. With Lowe having been signed by the previous coaching staff, Vaughn wasn’t sure what to make of him, given that he was only 5-foot-10 and, as Vaughn saw it, “kind of nerdy.”

“He looks like he’s about 13 years old,” Vaughn recalled. “I’m like, ‘Who’s this guy? What is this all about?’ And then you just see him on the field, you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s what this is about.’”

University of Maryland product Brandon Lowe homered twice Wednesday to help the Tampa Bay Rays even the World Series at a game apiece.
University of Maryland product Brandon Lowe homered twice Wednesday to help the Tampa Bay Rays even the World Series at a game apiece. (Ryan M. Kelly / Baltimore Sun)

A torn ACL cost Lowe his freshman season, but in each of the next two years, he led the Terps in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Tampa Bay drafted him in 2015′s third round, and by 2018, he was in the majors. The next season, he was an All-Star and finished third in American League Rookie of the Year voting.

Lowe, a 26-year-old second baseman, was even better in 2020, raising his OPS from .850 to .916 and coming three home runs shy of his 2019 total in 26 fewer games.

“I watched more Rays games this year than anything,” Vaughn said. "I got MLB TV strictly so I could watch the Rays play.

“The Rays aren’t where they’re at if Brandon doesn’t do what he did in the regular season. He was absolutely phenomenal.”

But he slowed in the postseason, battling his mechanics. After an 0-for-4 showing in Game 1, he entered Wednesday’s Game 2 having gone 6-for-56 in the playoffs. Then, batting from the left side, Lowe homered twice to left field to help the Rays tie the series.

Vaughn said Lowe “puts more pressure on himself than anybody at times,” and Lowe admitted to reporters after the game that stretches like those he was going through tended to weigh on him heavily, especially when he was younger.

“To say that my mind wasn’t going different places during that kind of struggle would be lying to you,” Lowe said. "There were times that I wasn’t feeling too good, but that’s what is so great about this team, this coaching staff. As soon as I started dragging my feet, somebody was right there to pick me up and tell me to focus up.

“I’m just glad that they showed faith in me and kept me in the lineup.”

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Less than half an hour before the decisive seventh game of the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros, Vaughn shot Lowe a text, not expecting a response. He got one immediately.

“I said, ‘B, look, the reality is you’re playing in Game 7 of an ALCS, and there’s people who would give anything to be in your shoes. I’m proud as heck of you for what you do, and I’m excited to watch you go out and play free, play fun and go get after it,’” Vaughn said. “He sends me a text right back, and he’s like, ‘Hopefully, after tonight, we’re a World Series team.’ I said, ‘We believe in visualization. Speak that thing into existence and go get it done.’ Sure enough, about four hours later, they finished it off.”

Two years before Lowe and Vaughn arrived in College Park, the New York Mets drafted Kolarek, a Catonsville High graduate, out of Maryland in the 11th round in 2010. He spent the next eight seasons in four organizations, including separate stints with the Rays. The latter culminated in his major league debut as a 28-year-old in 2017, but he still spent most of that year and the next in the minors. He became a solid left-handed relief option for Tampa Bay, but in 46 outings since being traded to the Dodgers, the 31-year-old has a 0.88 ERA.

The fact that this World Series comes against the organization that first gave Kolarek a major league opportunity isn’t lost on his family.

“It’s such a baseball twist,” Frank Kolarek said. “The Rays will always have a special place in our heart as a family, and I know it does with Adam. I know that’s such a special part of all this. The Rays are a first-call organization, so to see these two clubs tee it up against each other, it’s fantastic.”

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Adam Kolarek, a University of Maryland product, his wife Melanie and their nearly 1-year-old son Hank before Game 7 of the National League Championship Series in Arlington, Texas. Kolarek, a Catonsville native, and Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe are the first Maryland alums to be on opposing teams in the World Series. Photo courtesy Frank Kolarek.
Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Adam Kolarek, a University of Maryland product, his wife Melanie and their nearly 1-year-old son Hank before Game 7 of the National League Championship Series in Arlington, Texas. Kolarek, a Catonsville native, and Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe are the first Maryland alums to be on opposing teams in the World Series. Photo courtesy Frank Kolarek. (Frank Kolarek)

Frank Kolarek, a former minor leaguer and scout, operates the League of Dreams foundation, which provides opportunities in baseball and softball to children and adults with special needs. His son regularly participates in events, with Vaughn and Kolarek able to get to know each other at clinics Maryland’s baseball program has been involved with.

“I think because he had to grind it out, eight years in the minors, he has a deeper appreciation of every day,” Frank Kolarek said. “I think to watch him give back to young kids and always have the time for kids with disabilities and all those things, that’s made me as proud as any accomplishment that he’s been able to achieve.”

In the 2019 postseason, before Major League Baseball established a three-batter minimum for relievers, the Dodgers used Kolarek exclusively as a weapon against young Washington Nationals star Juan Soto. Washington ended up taking the five-game series en route to its first championship, but Kolarek retired Soto in all three of their matchups, striking him out twice.

It’s that success against one of baseball’s best left-handed batters that leads Vaughn to believe Kolarek might have an edge if he’s called upon to face Lowe, Tampa Bay’s top left-handed hitter. But he’s learned not to count out Lowe.

“I think at some point, before this series is over, we’re definitely gonna see it. I’m gonna be glued to the TV,” Vaughn said. “I’m not ready for baseball to be over. I feel like we just got it back, so I want seven games, and I want it to be Lowe vs. Kolarek with the game on the line in Game 7 and see what happens.”

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