Despite starting on the bench, freshman Michael Iannazzo plays a pivotal role in the Dirty Terps’ success

Maryland trailed, 4-3, in the top of the fifth against a James Madison team ranked higher than the Terps in RPI. The Terrapins came into the game losers of four straight Big Ten series having lost to Nebraska the Sunday before by 12 runs. Maryland was in desperate need of a win and with two runners on the opportunity was presented to Freshman Michael Iannazzo to be a hero. 

Iannazzo started the year in a bench role making his first appearance of the season on February 28, in a mid-week game against VCU. Iannazzo had one at-bat which resulted in a ground out as well as an RBI. The at-bat didn’t mean much as the Terps lost, 15-7, but it did provide Maryland fans with their first look at the kid out of Southport, Connecticut. 

As Iannazzo stepped to the plate with Sam Hojnar standing at second and Kevin Keister at first, most if not all expected anything but a home run. Iannazzo had accumulated seven hits in the season to that point, none had gone for more than two bases. He hadn’t even hit a homerun in his four years at Fairfield College Preparatory High School, so a home run was one of the most unlikely outcomes in the situation.  

The left-handed batter stepped into the box and got a first pitch slider down and in — a pitch he said postgame that he likes to hit — and sent it flying over the Terps bullpen in right field. 

“I was just speechless,” assistant coach Tommy Gardiner said. “I turn to Jimmy, I was like I have no idea how he did that. Seeing him run around the bases he was just floating like it’s what we call a blackout moment. It was just awesome.” 

Iannazzo wasn’t known for his power when Maryland’s coaching staff recruited him out of high school. The six-foot Freshman committed verbally in his sophomore year of high school choosing Maryland in part for its coaching and the fact that players on the team made an effort to reach out to him and tell him about the school, he said. 

“We’ve always known his hit tool was there, he’s a natural hitter,” head coach Matt Swope said. “He’s pesky, he’s hard to strike out, his bat to ball is elite of elite, that’s why we recruited him.”

That hit tool has translated well to the college game. Iannazzo is batting .333 with an OPS of .910. Iannazzo has only struck out nine times this season adding a much needed dynamic to a Terrapin lineup that ranks second in the Big Ten in strikeouts. Gardiner and the Terps liken Iannazzo’s approach to another slappy left-handed hitter that accomplished quite a lot at the big league level.

“Ever since the fall, everyone on the team kind of just called him Ichiro,” Gardiner said. “Like he would just slap the ball around everywhere and just cause havoc.”

Iannazzo may not be at the level of the former MVP and Rookie of the Year, but he has a keen understanding of who he is at the plate and how he can be successful. 

“Honestly, like the way I hit I guess hasn’t really changed that much in terms of like where I hit it and stuff,” Iannazzo said. “I’m not someone who’s going to be hitting 20 home runs in a year and I think just like sticking to what I know is probably, has helped me the most.”

Sticking to his approach has helped him accumulate 16 hits this season in 48 at-bats. Iannazzo said that he sometimes falls into the trap of trying to be someone that he’s not, but that can be said of most freshmen and he’s learned at an early stage in his career that “sticking to what you know is best.”

Sticking to what you know best isn’t always how things work out especially in the world of sports.  

Iannazzo was part of a recruiting class for Maryland that included a bevy of infield talent that included Brayden Martin and Chris Hacopian who have both been mainstays in the Terrapin lineup as well as Jordan Crosland who has made multiple appearances in the Maryland lineup this season. All four entered the fall season as shortstops, but with captain Kevin Keister maning the position they needed to develop at different positions.

Martin and Crosland have found homes in the corner outfield positions while Chris made his home at third base. Iannazzo moved around in the fall playing primarily second base he said, but when Chris was dealing with an arm injury that forced him to move into a designated hitter role, Iannazzo’s number was called to take over the hot corner. 

Iannazzo earned his first start on April 13, in the second game of the Northwestern series going two for four with two doubles. Since then Iannazzo has played in every game, starting all but one. All of Iannazzo’s starts in which he played the field have come at third base which is a position he’s still getting accustomed to. 

“I think hardest thing is like those hard hit balls to your backhand, just reacting from such a short distance, compared to like shortstop it’s a lot farther, big change,” Iannazzo said.

“In my opinion, playing third base at the college level is one of the more difficult positions,” Gardiner said. “You don’t really see tons of guys there that have really high fielding percentages because you have limited opportunities to make plays. The ball’s not hit there very often, but when the ball is hit there, the degree of difficulty on the play is extremely high.”

Gardiner — who played over 40 games at third base for Maryland in his 4-year career — said that he has enjoyed working with Iannazzo on the intricacies of the position. The work has paid off as the Freshman has a 1.000 fielding percentage with zero errors, seven assists, and two putouts.   

The Terps went on to win the game against James Madison due in large part to the go-ahead runs provided by Iannazzo. Maryland has won five of its last seven since Iannazzo’s first career home run and in those games Iannazzo is batting eight for 24 with four RBI. 

Iannazzo has made the most of his opportunity by being ready. Iannazzo said that he tried to treat practice reps as game reps mentally which allows him to be more prepared for the moments in the game. That mentality was echoed by Gardiner who said that he laid out the situation to the Connecticut product early this season.

“I talked to him and I was like ‘hey, you might not have a ton of opportunities, we’re going to be on the road a lot, we’re not going to have a ton of practices, so your BP [batting practice] every single day you need to treat it like a game. Those 15 swings that you get you have to treat them like they’re just as important as your at-bats everyday. Those ground balls like BP every single day is your practice for the next couple of weeks until you get an opportunity’,” Gardiner said. 

“He really took that to heart and his BP everyday was great. He continued to work at third base and get better and better every single day and then when his opportunity came, he took full advantage of it.”

Iannazzo and the Terps have six games left before finding out their fate whether that be the postseason or the end of the season. Iannazzo said his only focus as the season comes to a close is helping Maryland win.

“I think if we can finish the season well and hopefully make a run in the tournament [that’d] be awesome.”