Connor Staine, one of Maryland baseball’s young relievers to take the mound late, worked himself into a jam in the top of the eighth. With two runners on and two outs, the dangerous Boston Merila dug into the box with a chance to tie the game up at five.
Staine threw two quick balls, prompting a visit from pitching coach Corey Muscara. On the precipice of disaster, Staine responded with confidence; the sophomore fired three consecutive strikes, retiring Merila on an overpowering fastball up in the zone. He spun around to his fielders, clenched his fists and yelled in excitement, holding the Gophers scoreless with one inning to go.
On the back of timely hitting from the bottom of the order and lights out performances from several relievers, the Terps completed the sweep of Minnesota, 6-3, extending their winning streak to six in a row and improving their record to 19-13.
“We found a way to get it done, which I think you have to do at home. We took care of business,” head coach Rob Vaughn said. “We found a way to sweep a series at home and keep moving in the right direction.”
With a chance to sweep Minnesota (4-25) and grab its ninth win in ten games, Maryland baseball tapped its ace, Sean Burke, to start Sunday’s finale in College Park.
The Golden Gophers set themselves up with their most convincing early scoring chance in the second with back-to-back hits from catcher Chase Stanke and first baseman Ronald Sweeney. But after a sacrifice bunt, Burke swiftly retired the next two batters to wiggle out of trouble and preserve the scoreless tie.
Maryland took advantage of Burke’s shutdown inning to jump ahead in the bottom of the frame. Right fielder Troy Schreffler Jr. doubled to left, and catcher Justin Vought followed up with a no doubt long ball over the scoreboard in left to take a 2-0 lead.
“[Schreffler] was awesome. He had an awesome weekend. I mean, he played tremendous. This is a guy that spent the last twelve days in quarantine due to some contact tracing stuff,” Vaughn said. “Troy’s been really really good. He’s been kind of biding his time. He’s been an unbelievable teammate up to this point this year when he hasn’t really had a ton of opportunities.”
The Terps followed up with more runs in the bottom of the third. Matthew Shaw’s leadoff double, followed by a single from Maxwell Costes and a walk from Matt Orlando loaded the bases with just one out for the hero of yesterday’s game, Tommy Gardiner.
Gardiner wasted little time, sending the second pitch he saw into left field for a two-RBI single and chasing Gopher starter Tom Skoro. Righty Josh Culliver inherited runners on first and second with one out but was able to hold the Maryland lead to 4-0.
Left-handed freshman Logan Ott replaced Burke after he tallied just three innings of work and 52 pitches, a worryingly abbreviated outing for the Maryland ace.
Ott had no issue shutting the Gophers down in the fourth but allowed them on the board in the fifth thanks to a solo homer from Boston Merila. First baseman Jordan Sweeney followed up with a two-run blast, cutting the Maryland lead to 4-3 and abruptly ending Ott’s afternoon.
“Every time these [young guys] are out there, even with the mistakes, they’re going to be better because of it,” Vaughn said on his young players, like Ott, struggling at times.
Runs scored in the previous two innings would have appeared as a luxury for the Terps, but they quickly became a necessity for Rob Vaughn’s squad. With just one run of wiggle room to work with, Maryland needed to come up with insurance in the second half of the game.
Sophomore Matt Orlando did just that in the bottom of the fifth, lining an RBI double to the wall in left-center to extend the Terps’ lead to 5-3.
“If the underclassmen keep performing well and the upperclassmen keep performing well also, and we come together, we have a good chance to do something special this year,” Shaw said on the huge contributions from the youth on Maryland’s roster.
With three innings to go, Vaughn called on star reliever, Ryan Ramsey, out of the bullpen for some length and stability down the stretch. Schreffler aided Ramsey’s scoreless seventh inning with a leaping web-gem grab at the wall in right-center, and Maryland clung to its two-run lead.
Righty Connor Staine relieved Ramsey after one inning, working himself into trouble before striking out Merila to end the inning on a high fastball.
Maryland took advantage of the momentum shift in the bottom of the eighth. Centerfielder Chris Alleyne was hit by a pitch and motored around to third on a hard single to left from Shaw. Shortstop Benjamin Cowles followed up with a walk to load the bases with one out.
Costes lined an RBI single through the shortstop hole, but Matt Orlando was the victim of a diving stab from Zach Raabe at second in the last solid scoring chance of the inning for the Terps.
“It’s kind of tough in a game like that, especially on a Sunday against a team like that, to get energy in the dugout,” Shaw said. “Toward the end of the game we started to realize that we needed those runs, so the energy picked up for sure.”
With a 6-3 lead in the top of the ninth, sophomore right-hander Sam Bello took the mound to close the game out. On just three pitches, Bello got the job done and solidified yet another win for the Terps.
“It was awesome,” Bello said on closing out the game. “I was able to feed off of all the energy that [the rest of the bullpen] gave, and they were just throwing strikes and competing. As soon as one guy does it, then it feeds over to the next guy and it keeps going. When the bullpen’s doing that, it’s a good sight. We’re scary.”
Three things to know
1. Sean Burke exited Sunday’s finale after just three innings. After three shutout frames, Burke was lifted from the game with no explanation. Pitching to a 4.53 ERA on the season and currently sitting second in the conference in strikeouts, an injury to the draft-ready Burke would be a major blow this Maryland rotation. While coach Vaughn’s staff is deep enough to fill the innings, few if any pitchers in the Big Ten can replicate Burke’s production and raw stuff on the mound. If this is indeed an arm-related issue, the Terps’ early pitching success will be something to watch through the last month of the season.
Vaughn boiled Burke’s abrupt outing down to more rest for the redshirt sophomore, who is coming off of a 117 pitch outing against Iowa.
“He’s fine ... we ran him up for 117 pitches last week, so we wanted to use this as a de-load week for him,” Vaughn said. “Much more of just, we want to do right by Sean and allow him to get recovered.”
2. The bottom of the Maryland lineup did most of the damage in big spots. The five through nine hitters in the Terps’ lineup went 6-14 with five of the team’s RBI on Sunday, taking advantage of a lackluster Minnesota pitching rotation to secure Maryland’s win. catcher Justin Vought and third baseman Tommy Gardiner contributed two RBI apiece, working quality at-bats and making the most of mistakes from opposing arms. The top of the order has always been the main run producer for the Terps this season; if the bottom of the lineup can come around as well, this will be a scary team to face here in the month of May.
3. Maryland is now 9-1 in their last 10 games. The Terps have won six straight and are playing their best baseball when it matters most. With just four weekends remaining in regular season play, the team has put itself strongly into the conversation for an NCAA regional bid. The Big Ten regular-season title is all but decided as well, as the top seven teams in the conference were separated by just four games on the loss side coming into Sunday’s matchup.
“[We] control our destiny,” Vaughn said. “That’s really all you can ask for. We’re kind of in a position right now that, if we want to play in June, we have to deserve it.”