Minnesota, by almost every metric, is the worst offensive baseball team in the Big Ten. It ranks last in batting average, home runs, runs batted in and slugging percentage, to name a few. The Golden Gophers also entered Friday evening ranked No. 225 in RPI with a 14-31 record — the second most losses of any team in the conference.
But in their series opener against No. 19 Maryland, they out-slugged the usually-potent Terps offense — which ranks near or at the top of the Big Ten in most major statistical categories — and took the game, 10-7.
In their 46th game of the season, Friday was just the fifth time the Golden Gophers plated 10 runs.
“You’d think seven on those arms on a Friday night, you’d like to think that would be enough. It just wasn’t tonight,” Maryland head coach Rob Vaughn said. “They were just better.”
Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium is a hitter-friendly ballpark, but the the Terps couldn’t take advantage of the friendly confines of the yard like Minnesota did. Warm weather turned the stadium into a launchpad, and seven balls sailed over the outfield wall before the fourth inning came to a close. After that, Maryland’s offense went silent and only had two hits from then on.
“Felt like we stepped in the box and it was almost 0-2 every time, just because they were pounding the strike zone,” Vaughn said.
After a two-run blast by junior shortstop Matt Shaw gave the Terps a 7-6 lead, the stage was set for Maryland to outpace the Minnesota bats that were hitting far above their usual capabilities and take game one of the penultimate regular-season series of the season. But it was the Golden Gophers that woke up, not the Terps, and a string of five consecutive scoreless innings for Maryland paled in comparison to a three-run fifth inning and run-scoring eighth from Minnesota.
The scoring was unsurprisingly kicked off by a two-run shot by Maryland senior third baseman Nick Lorusso in the first inning, but that lead lasted less than an inning before Minnesota redshirt junior catcher Riley Swensen came through in a bases-loaded situation with a three-run double.
Swensen struck again in the fourth inning with a solo bomb, and just two batters later the Gophers sent another ball out of the compact confines of the stadium, this time a two-run homer off the bat of junior infielder Boston Merila — his first of the season and only the second of his career. His only other collegiate home run also came against Maryland on May 2, 2021.
But a home run derby requires two participants, and the Terps looked ready when the bottom half of the inning came around. First, it was senior second baseman Kevin Keister that launched a fastball over the left-center field wall to score three runs, and next an inevitable two-run home run from Shaw matched Lorusso’s earlier blast to not only give his team the lead, but also tie his left-side-of-the-infield counterpart for the team lead with his 21st homer of the campaign.
But after senior starting pitcher Nick Dean — who finished having thrown four innings, allowing seven hits and six earned runs — was replaced by junior Nate Haberthier, Minnesota jumped ahead and never looked back. Haberthier only retired two batters and allowed a pair of Golden Gopher home runs that made it 9-7.
Haberthier’s replacement was Nigel Belgrave, who steadied the ship and worked 2.1 innings of scoreless baseball. But his command slipped when he was sent back out to the mound for the eighth inning. He walked the first two batters he faced, one of which scored on a two-out double by Brady Counsell after redshirt junior David Falco Jr. had entered the game. That hit proved to be the final blow, as the Terps couldn’t muster another run and lost the first game of a crucial series as the conference title race heats up.
“They were gripping it so tight tonight,” Vaughn said of his team’s mentality. “... I just told them, I said ‘Just go play baseball, man. Like, you’re not winning the Big Ten tomorrow, you’re not going to the NCAA Tournament tomorrow. Like, let go of all that and just go play baseball.’”
Three things to know
1. Two-out hitting fueled Minnesota. Nine of Minnesota’s 10 runs were scored with two outs, a testament to both the Golden Gophers’ clutch hitting and the Terps’ inability to work out of jams.
“They had nine two-out RBIs tonight. That’s how you win games,” Vaughn said.
2. Dean struggled. Dean, who has struggled with forearm tightness of late, had a disappointing showing against a struggling Minnesota squad. He’ll likely start one more game before the postseason begins, where the Terps will need him to step up.
“He definitely doesn’t feel 100%, there’s no question,” Vaughn said. “... You saw a lot of his misses [Friday] are up, and [Dean’s] misses are usually not up.”
3. Big Ten standings. Maryland’s loss was not only detrimental to its NCAA Tournament seeding, but also to its Big Ten regular-season title hopes. Indiana, which entered Friday one game behind the Terps, blew out Purdue on Friday to draw even with Maryland with five games remaining.