- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 21, 2020

On Rob Vaughn’s first day as an assistant coach for Maryland baseball in 2012, he walked toward the batting cage and saw a scrawny freshman digging in to hit. The kid didn’t draw much attention to himself. He looked all of 15, still with a baby face.

But he sure could swing a bat.

That was Brandon Lowe before his name meant something at the highest level of the game, and before the crack of the ball jumping off his bat convinced Vaughn that Lowe had a bright future beyond College Park. That was before the Tampa Bay Rays drafted Lowe in the third round of the 2015 MLB draft, and before he burst onto the scene as an All-Star selection in 2019.

And that was before Lowe helped lead his team right to the end of October, booking a matchup with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. Looking back now, Vaughn learned quickly how that unassuming freshman in the batting cage would turn into a force who still hasn’t reached his apex.

“You never doubted that Brandon could hit at that level,” said Vaughn, who’s now the Terrapins’ baseball coach. “That was always something you thought he had a chance to do. But, man, his work ethic, his desire to be great, is what ultimately allowed it to happen so quickly.”

Seeing Lowe and Adam Kolarek — a reliever for the Dodgers who attended Maryland a decade ago — compete in the World Series shows Vaughn’s current players there’s a path to the big leagues, and that path can flow through Maryland. But it doesn’t come without hurdles.

Lowe missed his 2013 season, suffering a knee injury shortly before Opening Day. When he returned for the 2014 campaign, though, he made an immediate impact. Lowe led the Terrapins with a .348 average, spraying the ball to all fields, even though he still looked young.

“You look like the bat boy running around out there,” Vaughn used to tell him. “Now you look up in the big leagues, this guy is really transformed. Now he’s the dude that’s literally absolutely losing baseballs, you know, and hitting balls into the upper deck.”

During the 2019 season, when Lowe finished third in rookie of the year voting, he launched 17 homers and added 51 RBI to accompany his .270 average. He followed that up with a .269 average and 14 longballs during the 60-game 2020 regular season.

That transformation is two-fold. For one, Lowe is older. He’s added about 10 pounds to his 5-foot-10 frame since college. But another key factor in his development has been working with his agent, Hunter Bledsoe.

“His agent is not the slick-backed hair [type], wearing the $2,000 shoes, that’s wheeling and dealing,” Vaughn said. “His agent is the guy who’s in the cage with him, grinding with him, coaching him.”

John Szefc, Lowe’s former coach at Maryland and the current skipper at Virginia Tech, credits Bledsoe for further developing Lowe’s swing and approach at the plate. Lowe relocated near Nashville so the pair could train together more frequently, and they maximized Lowe’s power potential by incorporating more of his body into the swing.

The 26-year-old isn’t the finished product yet, either.“Every player, at some point or another, hits a plateau. And that’s what it is,” Szefc said. “He has not ever hit that. He’s gotten better, and better, and better, and I think all the experience that he’s getting now in the postseason will help him to take the next step. You could be looking at a guy who’s a top-three second baseman in Major League Baseball — certainly in the American League.”

A little over eight years removed from when Vaughn first met Lowe — then just a quiet 18-year-old with a swing that spoke for him — Vaughn received a signed Rays jersey from Lowe. He framed it and hung it in his basement Monday night.

Vaughn has followed Lowe’s progression closely this season, with little else to watch amid the coronavirus pandemic. And before Game 7 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday, Vaughn sent Lowe a message.

“Just go enjoy the moment,” Vaughn wrote about 25 minutes before first pitch.

Lowe texted his former coach back immediately. Later that night, the Rays edged the Houston Astros, 4-2, to secure a place in the World Series. Vaughn texted Lowe once again, congratulating him.

“I didn’t hear back quite as quickly,” Vaughn said, “because there was champagne flying everywhere, I’m sure.”

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