Linganore graduate Sam Downs had just pitched seven strong innings for Stevenson University’s baseball team.
Throwing 85 pitches, he allowed no earned runs, scattered four hits and issued no walks against Montclair State on March 10.
“That’s probably the first game of my career that I’ve never had a walk,” he said. “I needed that confidence boost because I’ve struggled with my command since I was a kid.”
That start bolstered what was already shaping up as a fine sophomore season for Downs. The right-hander had no idea he’d never throw another pitch for the Mustangs in 2020.
Like athletes throughout the country, Downs’ season came to a sudden halt because of the coronavirus pandemic. The stoppage was particularly detrimental to a pitcher looking to maintain newfound command.
To retain arm strength, pitching form and control, Downs had to keep throwing off a mound towards a target behind home plate, and that task became even harder when Maryland issued stay-at-home orders.
So Downs and his father, Brian, improvised. They installed a pitcher’s mound and catcher’s box in their backyard, replete with a pitcher’s rubber, home plate and small net behind the plate representing a strike zone.
Now, the 6-foot-7, 205-pound pitcher throws by himself at his family’s Monrovia residence.
“This big hiatus that we’re all in, we kind of just, spur of the moment, thought we might as well do something with our time,” Downs said. “It gives me the opportunity to continue getting better and to maintain.”
The net with the strike zone is backed by a bigger net, which prevents pitches from hitting the Downs’ house.
Before stay-at-home orders were issued, Downs threw at Mount Airy’s American Legion field with Jacob Ference, his catcher at Linganore.
Downs hopes those two can eventually resume their sessions, especially since they both plan to play for the Putty Hill Panthers summer team. But right now, it’s uncertain when that will happen.
“Having a catcher is not really allowed,” he said. “[We’re] still looking into seeing if we sanitize things and stuff like that ... 60 feet, six inches is pretty good social distancing, and it gets us both some good work.”
In the meantime, Downs throws into a net, preparing for the summer season he’s been looking forward to since his successful college season got cut short.
“I had gotten to the point in the season where I was throwing a hundred pitches an outing,” he said. “And since that kind of just stopped, I really wanted to focus on keeping my arm strength up so that when the season eventually starts back up again, I’ll not fall behind and I’m still in the same place I was.”
He was in a pretty good place this spring. In four appearances with Stevenson, all starts, he had a 1.57 ERA and 26 strikeouts in 23 innings. He went 3-0 (the non-decision came in his stellar start against Montclair State), ending the season tied for No. 16 in Division III for victories.
“Things started to click when we played Lancaster Bible in my third start,” he said. “I had just started showing fastball command, and I was starting to show a little bit of dominance out there.”
Downs called his freshman season “rocky.” In 11 appearances, including three starts, he went 3-1 with a 2.94 ERA.
There were some breakout games, though. One of them came against Widener, when Downs surrendered four hits and one run in six innings.
“It was good to get out there and compete with a lot of guys who are a little bit older than me and a lot stronger than me,” he said. “I was a freshman, still a pretty scrawny kid.”
Since returning home from school, Downs has been working construction with his father and serving as a closer (a fitting job description for a pitcher) at Food Lion’s deli.
And he’s still connected to Stevenson. The college uses BlueJeans, a video conferencing app, to keep students connected with teachers, classmates and sports teams.
“It’s helping to keep everybody sane,” he said. “I think it’s important that we keep communicating with each other so we don’t lose the relationships with the guys that we had started to make this year.”
And all-the-while, Downs will be using his homemade mound to make sure he doesn’t lose what helped him enjoy a stellar — albeit abbreviated — sophomore season.