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Marty Costes' diamond development a key for Maryland entering NCAA baseball tourney

On a Monday in late April two years ago, Maryland baseball assistant coach Rob Vaughn drove up to John Carroll for a Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference game. Marty Costes was playing for Archbishop Curley, and Vaughn wanted to check in on the Terps recruit. The game went about as poorly, and well, as he could have imagined.

The bad: The Friars lost, 16-6. The good: not because of Costes. In his first at-bat, the senior hit a home run. In his second at-bat, another home run. Then he hit a double. Then, with two outs and the bases loaded, he belted a ball that would have cleared the fences again if not for an interloping outfielder. Afterward, as he was leaving, Vaughn met up with Brooks Norris, Costes' coach and a former Terps pitcher.

"He's like, 'You think he can graduate early and come help us out now?'" Norris recalled Vaughn joking. "It was just really impressive what he did."

Maryland baseball coach John Szefc on Tuesday called Costes "a great story," in part because his is not a typical story. On the Terps baseball team that has led the program to its third NCAA tournament appearance in four years are the usual suspects: former showcase standouts and year-round baseball obsessives, pitchers and hitters who dropped other sports in high school because baseball was their ticket to college.

Costes, a sophomore right fielder and one of the more feared hitters in the Big Ten this season, is a Marty-come-lately. A three-sport standout at Curley, he has "really played the game full-time for maybe 21/2 years," Szefc said. Coaches and teammates characterize his game as "raw" — raw power, raw potential. How many first-team All-Big Ten selections could you say that about?

"He's developed very quickly," Szefc said ahead of No. 3 seed Maryland's game Friday against No. 2 seed West Virginia. "And I think he's got a really, really good future."

The son of a Bowie State baseball player, Costes grew up not far from Memorial Stadium, in Northeast Baltimore. Baseball came naturally to him, but all the way through high school, sports were a timeshare: football in the late summer and fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring and early summer.

Costes looked up to Kobe Bryant, and as he grew older, he gravitated more toward the hardwood; friends were doing the same. On the gridiron, he became a standout running back and safety for Curley, earning offers and recruiting interest from schools such as Navy, Villanova, Davidson and Ivy League institutions. But his father, also named Marty, always stressed baseball, and Costes kept up with the sport as he moved on from Poly to Curley.

At what level, Norris didn't initially know. He'd heard that Costes played for a Baltimore County Metro League team, where there was the occasional diamond but normally buried somewhere amid the rough. At an offseason workout where Norris met Costes, the junior was rusty. If it seemed to onlookers like he'd spent more time recently hitting jumpers or running backs than fastballs, well, he had.

After the winter sports season ended, Costes showed up at the Friars' first day of hitting outside. The center-field fence at Curley measures out to about 330 feet, but in the springtime, countervailing winds kill most home run bids. Norris learned that day that Costes could overcome Mother Nature with an aluminum bat. In batting practice, the newcomer sent ball after ball out of sight, some carrying as far as 450 feet.

"It was the kind of BP that everybody stopped and watched," Norris said, "because the fielders really didn't have much of a purpose."

Costes won the MIAA Triple Crown that season, but he remained a high-profile anomaly, estranged from the usual summer circus of recruiting showcases. Towson had started to pay more attention by the start of his senior year, but the early-October day he received an offer from Maryland, he committed. (Naturally, his official visit that fall was to a Terps football game.)

In his two years of starting, Costes' work with Vaughn and director of baseball operations Matt Swope has focused on the simple things. He wants hard contact — like the kind that he used to launch a home run ball "into outer space" at Nebraska, as one teammate said. He doesn't want weak ground balls. He wants to make the right approach in the outfield if a base runner's going from first to third on a single. He doesn't want to panic if a ball is pinballing around in the corner.

"The more and more I've been at this, I've just become a smarter hitter. I became a smarter baseball player, rather than a more talented player," said Costes, who's tied for the team lead in home runs (11), RBIs (42) and walks (31) and is second in batting average (.326) and on-base percentage (.427).

The Terps hope his evolution continues in College Park. A year older than most sophomores, Costes will be eligible for this summer's draft. He said he would "love" to return, and unless the circumstances were "perfect," he wouldn't want to leave.

Set to compete in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League this summer after the NCAA tournament, Costes could become a "really premium" draft pick, Szefc said, with another year of development and exposure. The coach compared his ascent to that of junior Brian Shaffer (North Harford), the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year.

Asked whether he had seen Costes' football highlights at Curley, Szefc grinned. "I wouldn't want to have to tackle him," he said. At this rate next year, just imagine what an opposing pitcher would feel like.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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