COLLEGE PARK — The Big Ten Conference's top pitcher was not the top recruit in Maryland three years ago. He was not the state's best right-handed pitching prospect, or even the sixth best. On Perfect Game, the high school scouting service that ranked him the nation's No. 484 right-hander in the Class of 2014, his profile page did not even have a mug shot.
Asked Tuesday about this apparent misevaluation (and possible clerical error), Brian Shaffer — thrower of strikes, bringer of heat — was unsparing. "I think all that," the Maryland junior said, "was correct."
He smiled sheepishly. Only recently have people in baseball realized he is indeed quite good at baseball. Last week, the Big Ten's coaches named Shaffer the league's Pitcher of the Year. On Friday, he will enter the No. 3-seeded Terps' NCAA tournament opener as the starter with the best ERA, by far, in the four-team Wake Forest Regional.
For so much of his path to College Park, his talents were unseen, as unrecognizable as the generic silhouette still marking that Perfect Game page. But it was Maryland's embrace of his potential that gave him a dream-come-true opportunity. And it was others' dismissal of his future that has helped make him a nightmare on the mound.
"Growing up, I was the underdog," Shaffer said. "I was, like, nothing. I was always just looked over for some reason."
The slights, oddly enough, started in Little League Baseball. Coaches would tell Shaffer's father, Brian Sr., that Brian Jr. did not have a future in the sport. Brian Sr. jokes now about the "daddy coaches" who would play their sons at shortstop ahead of Brian Jr., skeptical of his tall, lanky frame that belied crushing power at the plate.
Later, in club baseball, there was only a grudging acknowledgement of his ability: "Oh, he's good, but not that good," Brian Jr. remembers hearing. Brian Sr. relayed many of these barbs without explanation, having become something of a sports psychologist for his son.
When he was coaching or working with one of Brian Jr.'s youth teams, Brian Sr. would meet with the opposing team's coach and trade pregame lineups. Then he'd return with fake news: "Man, you wouldn't believe what those guys are saying over there."
His team, Brian Jr. especially, would eat it up. "And we'd tromp them," Brian Sr. said. He wanted his son to pitch mad, to play mad, because lethargy meant low velocity and piddling at-bats, and a quiet fury meant near-unhittable stuff and home runs belted "a mile."
Still, the summer before his senior year at North Harford, Brian Jr. was discouraged. Maybe he wouldn't have much of a future in baseball after all. Recruiting interest was scant, and at a tryout for a fall-ball team at Camden Yards, a sense of inadequacy was inescapable. His fastball was topping out at 86 mph; others were throwing up to 93 mph.
"I have no chance," he remembers thinking. "This is ridiculous."
Later that night, Brian Jr. got a call. It was from Jimmy Belanger, then Maryland's pitching coach. He'd attended the tryout. Belanger told him he was impressed, that Brian Jr. was "projectable," that he wanted to see him again.
They met under the most Disney-fied of circumstances: Brian Jr. guest-playing for a team, at the ballpark he had long wanted to call home, in front of an entire Terps coaching staff soon to realize he warranted a scholarship.
"I always wanted to go here, and I don't know why," said Shaffer, a Pylesville native. "And for them to be the first ones to recruit me, it was big-time."
Others caught on, but too late. At a Perfect Game tournament later that summer in Georgia, Brian Sr. recalled, his son's coach had the unpleasant job of telling Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference coaches that the skinny, 6-foot-4 right-hander they'd just seen already was committed.
The family declined invitations to premier showcases, and after an All-Metro first-team performance and Class 3A state final appearance as a senior, Brian Jr. arrived at Maryland still growing in mind and body. In one intrasquad scrimmage his freshman year, his fastball hit 94 mph, "randomly" up from the high 80s.
Brian Jr.'s first season was mostly unremarkable. Then it became record-breaking. He started for the Terps in their Big Ten tournament game against top-seeded Illinois, pitching seven strong innings; the 2-1 victory ended the Fighting Illini's Big Ten-record 27-game winning streak.
"That was the night it really broke loose," Brian Sr. said of his son's career.
With more muscle and a much-improved fastball-slider-changeup repertoire, Brian Jr. last year finished in the top 10 in the league in wins, ERA, strikeouts, innings pitched and opponents' batting average. At No. 25 Cal State Fullerton, he pitched a shutout. "I'll never forget that," right fielder Marty Costes (Archbishop Curley) said. In his final start of the year, a Big Ten tournament elimination game, he threw a two-hitter.
This season, maybe Brian Jr.'s last in college with the Major League Baseball draft beckoning, was historic. In being named the program's first Pitcher of the Year since 1972, he ended the regular season with a 1.67 ERA, tops in the Big Ten and ninth best nationally. (A rough Big Ten tournament opener against eventual champion Iowa bumped it up to 2.18.)
"He's developed into being one of the better strike throwers I've been around in college baseball in the years I've been working in it," coach John Szefc said.
With Brian Jr. likely to pitch Friday afternoon against No. 2 seed West Virginia, Brian Sr. will talk to him the night before, as is tradition, and they'll joke about how far he's come.
Last year, a former childhood coach came up to Brian Sr. in the supermarket and remarked on how well his son was doing at Maryland. Not exactly bulletin-board material, but by now, compliments, not criticism, are the norm for Brian Jr. When Brian Sr. tells his son, "Get mad!" he can laugh, knowing that Brian Jr. already has gotten even.
Gm. 1: Maryland vs. West Virginia, 2
Gm. 2: Wake Forest vs. UMBC, 7
Gm. 3: Gm. 1 loser vs. Gm. 2 loser, 12
Gm. 4: Gm. 1 winner vs. Gm. 2 winner, 7
Gm. 5: Gm. 3 winner vs. Gm. 4 loser, 12
Gm. 6: Gm. 4 winner vs. Gm. 5 winner, 5
x-Gm. 7: Gm. 4 winner vs. Gm. 5 winner, 7
All times p.m.