Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Pupa stars on Terps’ diamond

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Holding a prominent place in a team’s batting lineup and on the mound is nothing new for University of Maryland junior Jensen Pupa. After all, he performed those tasks, plus manned a key infield position, during his tenures with the Northwest High, Gaithersburg Post 295 American Legion and Montgomery College-Germantown baseball teams.

The only difference nowadays is Pupa, a former All-Gazette first-team performer, is doing similar things against some of the nation’s best NCAA Division I programs, including No. 22 Coastal Carolina, No. 8 Florida State, No. 3 North Carolina and Clemson.

‘‘It takes a special type of player to be able to do that,” said Maryland coach Terry Rupp after his team’s 5-3 win over Clemson Saturday in College Park. ‘‘Just from the mental aspect of taking the hill and pitching and then going to the plate and hit, but Jensen’s doing a fine job.”

After briefly playing second base to start the season, Pupa, a Rawlings Gold Glove winner in 2007 for Montgomery-Germantown, has primarily become the team’s top designated hitter as well as a key weekend pitcher – meaning he takes the mound against Maryland’s Atlantic Coast Conference opponents, such as Saturday’s contest against the Tigers.

‘‘It’s a big change [and] it’s a lot of work but it’s where I want to be and the competition is the best,” said Pupa, who was a first-team National Junior College Athletic Association All-American selection a year ago. ‘‘It’s fun. I get my bullpens [practice pitching sessions] in every week and pitch on the weekends and I hit every day. It’s a lot of work but I get it done. Being in the lineup is all I want.”

So far, Pupa, who has also seen time at first base this spring, is having mixed results in his dual roles – hitting well while struggling on the mound. At the plate, Pupa, a lefty hitter who throws right-handed, finished Saturday’s contest with a .325 average (26 for 80) with team-highs of 21 runs scored and nine doubles to go along with a home run and 10 runs batted in for the Terrapins (14-12 overall, 3-8 in the ACC). He’s also drawn 15 walks opposed to eight strikeouts.

‘‘He’s what I consider a pure hitter,” Rupp said. ‘‘You look at his hits to strikeouts, it’s almost 2-to-1 so he commands the strike zone. He has a nice swing and ... he works the whole field.”

Unfortunately for Pupa, opponents have done similar things again him during many of his six starts. Through Saturday’s no-decision, Pupa had compiled a 0-3 record with a 6.99 earned-run average (22 earned runs in 28 1⁄3 innings). Teams were batting .319 against him with 13 doubles.

‘‘At MC, you sometimes had worry about two or three hitters and the other guys ... can’t do too much damage,” Pupa said. ‘‘Now you’ve got 1 through 9 you’ve got to worry about. It’s definitely a lot harder to pitch. It’s also a lot harder to hit. Every day, you are going to face a good pitcher.”

Pupa established himself as one of the county’s best all-around players as a junior at Northwest when he set school records wins in a season (7-1 record), earned-run average (1.71), innings pitched (57) and complete games with six. He also recorded 49 strikeouts compared to a mere six walks and surrendered just 14 earned runs on 55 hits.

Pupa also produced a .471 batting average, a school-record 33 hits (a mark he shares with former teammate Brady Stouffer), 11 doubles, four triples, three home runs, a school-record 37 runs, 26 runs batted in and 13 steals. As a senior, Pupa hit .377 with 20 runs, seven doubles, three triples, four home runs and 21 RBI and went 4-4 with a 3.04 ERA and 54 strikeouts on the mound.

He was also a key figure during Gaithersburg Post 295’s back-to-back state titles in 2003 and 2004 and was named the state tournament’s most valuable player and most outstanding pitcher in 2004.

After spending a semester at his first choice, Division II West Virginia Tech, Pupa decided to return to the county in the spring of 2006 and play for Montgomery-Germantown coach Dan Rascher, where he helped the Gryphons win a pair of regional crowns and reach the NJCAA Division III World Series. Pupa won a total of 12 games through the regional championships during his two years at Germantown, hit 10 home runs as a freshman batted well over .400 as a sophomore.