In the top of the second inning of its series finale against Michigan State, Maryland baseball had an opportunity to do what it had struggled to do consistently all weekend: drive in a run with two outs and men on base.
Shortstop Benjamin Cowles led off the inning with a bloop single to left. Center fielder Chris Alleyne then struck out, but that didn’t stop the Terps. In the following at-bat, Cowles beat the tag at second off the bat of third baseman Matt Shaw, denying the Spartans the double play.
With two outs, senior right fielder Randy Bednar stepped up to the plate with the chance to tack on another run for the Terps. With two balls and two strikes on the Maryland right fielder, Bednar roped a single down the left-field line, adding some breathing room for freshman pitcher Jason Savacool and finally breaking through for the Terps with two outs.
Maryland wasted its chances through the first three games of the series for a disappointing start to the season, but the same couldn’t be said on Sunday afternoon in the team’s 3-2 victory over Michigan State.
“Two out hits are backbreakers,” head coach Rob Vaughn said. “We had come up short, we had the right guys up in the right spots in the first three games and just couldn’t quite punch it through. Today we got some big hits.”
Maryland got off to a crucial start, setting the tone after dropping the first three games of the series. Michigan State’s freshman starter Nick Powers was solid but unable to stave off Maryland’s clutch hitting performances early on.
Designated hitter Bobby Zmarzlak led the top of the second off with a base knock through the shortstop hole, followed by a patient plate appearance from first baseman Maxwell Costes, who drew a base on balls. Catcher Luke Shliger then pushed Zmarlak and Costes to second and third with a sacrifice bunt. The Terps struggled with making the most of their chances throughout the young season thus far, but left fielder Troy Schreffler hit a sacrifice fly to moderately deep left field to knock in a run and put his team up 1-0.
Looking to cut down on the Terps’ 2-0 deficit built in the third, Michigan State cleanup hitter Zach Iverson blooped a single into left with one out in the bottom of the fourth. With Iverson running on the pitch, the dangerous Zaid Walker bounced into a 4-6-3 double play to continue Jason Savacool’s great stretch of pitching.
“ [Assistant coach Corey Muscara] always preaches efficiency to our starters, we’ve got to get through as much of the game as possible,” Savacool said. “It was super exciting. I was a little nervous at first, but settled in pretty quickly.”
Maryland was retired in order in the top of the sixth, setting the Spartans up with some momentum for the bottom half of the inning. With the top of the order due up, Savacool retired Mitch Jebb on a weak ground ball to the right side. Speedster Bryce Kelley blooped a single into left and advanced to second on a Bailey Peterson grounder to third.
With two outs and a runner on second, Iverson lined a hard single up the middle to drive in the Spartans’ first run of the afternoon. But Savacool calmly and ended the threat, forcing a first-pitch groundout off the bat of Zaid Walker to end the inning.
In the Terps’ doubleheader on the day prior, the team’s relief pitching struggled to keep Michigan State’s bats in check. Maryland’s relief pitchers allowed six crucial runs across the two contests but didn’t have to turn to the bullpen at any point on Sunday thanks to the impressive and composed display from its freshman on the bump.
The Terps looked to create some breathing room for their young starter in the seventh, putting the first two runners of the inning on base. Second baseman Kevin Keister battled but harmlessly popped a foul ball to catcher Adam Proctor. Schreffler was thrown out at second on a double steal, but Cowles lined an RBI single into left to drive in Shliger, giving him RBIs in consecutive games.
“I really just think [our struggles] were the first game jitters,” Cowles said. “Once we got those out of the way, I think we settled in pretty nice.”
Continuing to capitalize on most of their chances Sunday afternoon, the Terps took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh.
The Spartans took advantage of a throwing error from third baseman Matt Shaw to put leadoff man Brock Vradenburg on second with nobody out to start the seventh. Adam Proctor’s groundout then moved Vradenburg to third, and Dillon Kark drove a sacrifice fly to medium-deep right field to drive in the run.
With Maryland’s advantage now cut to just a single run, the tying run stepped up to the plate in center fielder Peter Ahn. The Terps’ pitching struggled mightily late in-game in their doubleheader on Saturday, with their relievers allowing six combined runs across the losses.
But the team didn’t have to turn to the bullpen at any point on Sunday thanks to the impressive and composed display from its freshman on the bump, who struck out Ahn to end the inning and preserve Maryland’s slim lead.
Michigan State began to threaten again in the bottom half of the eighth. With one out, Bryce Kelley reached on a throwing error by shortstop Benjamin Cowles. Bailey Peterson flew out, and with two outs, the speedy Kelley was cut down at second by freshman catcher Luke Shliger, who fired a strong throw down to second. Shortstop Benjamin Cowles swept the tag across his body, catching Kelley on the leg and ending the Spartan threat in the eighth.
A quick top of the ninth for the Terps brought Michigan State back up in the bottom half, keen on making another late comeback. However, Savacool continued to be steadfast, forcing a groundout, line out and fly out to retire the side in order and secure Maryland’s first win of the season.
Three things to know
1. Jason Savacool made his first start. Only a freshman, Savacool was outstanding in his Maryland debut. A highly ranked prospect, he was surgical throughout and never waivered in his complete-game performance. He flashed impressive velocity on his fastball and outstanding command, preventing Michigan State’s offense from stringing good at-bats together. The youngster was never afraid to pitch to contact, working economically through a Spartan lineup that had tormented Maryland pitching throughout the weekend, proving that he belongs in the weekend rotation going forward.
“Very simply, the story of today was Jason Savacool. That was about as dominating and unbelievable of a freshman performance as I’ve ever seen,” Vaughn said after the game. “That guy pitched like he’s been in college for four years.”
2. Benjamin Cowles had a clutch performance. The senior shortstop for this Maryland club was instrumental in starting rallies Sunday afternoon. A 2-3 performance included a clutch RBI and run for the Terps, accounting for two of the three runs scored by the Maryland offense in the series finale. He was also integral on defense, tagging Bryce Kelley out at second on a huge caught stealing play that ended the Spartan threat in the eighth.
3. Luke Shliger had a great start behind the plate. The freshman backstop made his debut Saturday in game one of the day-night doubleheader, collecting the first hit of his career and playing solid defense. Shliger’s performance on Sunday was much more impressive, going 2-3 at the plate, scoring a run, and playing more stellar defense. He worked well with Savacool, keeping him in a rhythm and controlling balls in the dirt to prevent any unwanted advancements on the base paths. And, in the eighth inning, Shliger picked his team up by throwing out a potential base stealer at second, ending the threat of the Spartan top of the order and getting his team’s offense the chance to score more insurance runs.
“After about the second inning yesterday, [Shliger] really settled in and played the way we’ve seen him play,” Vaughn said. “[I am] really proud of Luke. Not surprised, but nonetheless very proud of his performance.”