Versatile LaMonte Wade blossoming into a star for Terps

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Terps center fielder LaMonte Wade hit two home runs to help Maryland advance in the NCAA tournament.

LaMonte Wade's weekend-long star turn in the Los Angeles regional of the NCAA baseball tournament guaranteed his Maryland baseball team attention even if it hadn't knocked off top-seeded UCLA to earn a second straight Super Regional appearance.

His pair of home runs was a rare power display that weekend, and came when teams finally thought they had a way to get Maryland's dynamic leadoff hitter out. But they came as a result of an approach and swing honed for two years while he played away from the center-field position he mans so well.

Wade, for two years a first baseman by necessity, transformed this year from an out-of-position role player to a blossoming star for the ascendant Terps.

"I think it's really paid off for him a lot, because he just has a lot of experience," Maryland coach John Szefc said. "He's played in the postseason two straight years. He's played in the Cape Cod League, so you're talking about a guy who has probably over 600 at-bats under his belt. He's very weather-tested, you know?"

Despite missing six weeks with a midseason hand injury, Wade (St. Paul's) leads Maryland with a .347 batting average. His .950 OPS ranks second behind second baseman Brandon Lowe, and his return to the lineup late in the season sparked the run that has carried Maryland (42-22) back to the Super Regionals, where for a second straight year Maryland will have to go through Virginia to earn a first-ever College World Series berth.

He made just as much impact with his glove in Los Angeles. In the opening game against No. 2 Ole Miss, Wade robbed Sikes Orvis of a home run in what proved to be a 3-2 victory. In victories over UCLA both Saturday and Monday, he threw out runners at home plate to end innings, connecting with catcher Kevin Martir to snuff out UCLA rallies.

"He literally dominated that regional," ESPNU analyst Mike Rooney, who was in the commentary booth all weekend in Los Angeles, said.

Rooney, a former assistant coach for national powerhouse Arizona State, was impressed with how Wade became the caliber of player he saw last weekend.

"Maryland had a really good center fielder [Charlie White], but the great lesson in this is he's a guy that wasn't the first-team high school All-American baseball player, but one of the reasons I've heard he's become so good this year is because he played every day," Rooney said. "The reason he played every day is he was willing to play first base."

As a freshman and sophomore, Wade played good defense at the position while hitting enough to play first base. He batted .260 with a team-high 36 RBIs as a freshman, and hit .247 as a sophomore.

Then, he was the rare small-ball first baseman, setting a school record with 17 sacrifice bunts in 2014. A year later, he's a potential five-tool center fielder hitting atop the order and terrifying opposing pitchers.

"He's a really unique leadoff hitter because he can take the ball out of the yard, and he can hit a ground ball in the six-hole with two strikes or put a good bunt down," Szefc said. "He can do a lot of things. … I think he gives us a really strong presence at the top of the lineup, and he's just really gotten better as he's gotten back."

Rooney said opposing pitching coaches couldn't find a way to throw to him last weekend, when Wade went 6-for-15 with two homers over four games.

After he stayed up the middle and went the other way with pitches on the outer half of the plate, Wade saw exactly two inside fastballs from UCLA. Both left the ballpark.

"UCLA went away after that, and sure enough, he blisters a ball to right field," Rooney said.

Wade acknowledges that he's much more comfortable in center than at first base, but reflected on how quickly he matured as a player by simply being in the lineup every day.

"My freshman year, once I got halfway through the season I wasn't a freshman anymore, because I was playing every day and getting used to the grind," Wade said. "I feel like the first two years, being an everyday player really helped me out this year because I had the experience.

"My freshman year at the beginning it was speeding up for me, and now with my experience I can slow the game down, really relax, really contribute any way I can."

Wade's brother, Jamal, a freshman for Maryland, said he's seen his growth in that sense first-hand.

"He carries himself pretty well," Jamal Wade said. "I think that's a really good thing to see, and just him hitting the ball and maturing as a hitter, he's definitely improved a lot."

Wade, like every returning Maryland player, carries last year's loss that ended the season in Charlottesville, Va., with him even a year later. Jamal Wade said his brother was despondent afterward and didn't really want to talk about it — all LaMonte told his younger brother was that they would be back.

"Here we are," Wade said. "We're back again, and we're excited to go back to Virginia. But this time, we're looking forward to changing that end result."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/JonMeoli

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