With its weekend series against Michigan tied at one game apiece, Maryland baseball looked to secure the ultimate NCAA Tournament resume boost by claiming a series victory against the ranked Wolverines in Ann Arbor, Michigan Sunday.
Maryland wasted no time in turning around Saturday’s quiet performance at the plate. With one out in the top of the first, the Big Ten’s home run leader shortstop Benjamin Cowles stepped to the plate with a runner on first.
The shortstop got into a fastball from Michigan starter Jacob Denner and sent it over the left-field wall for his 17th long ball of the season. Senior right fielder Randy Bednar followed up with a line drive over the wall to the same part of the park for a homer that left the bat at well over 100 miles per hour. Before Michigan stepped to the plate for their first at-bats, the Terps created a lead that would prevent them from trailing for the rest of the game.
The Terps scored three runs in the first inning and they only went on to build on their momentum from there, eventually defeating the Wolverines, 7-3, to clinch the series and move into second place in the Big Ten standings.
“Unbelievable job by our pitching staff having a big time bounce back day after a tough one yesterday,” head coach Rob Vaughn said. “And then offensively, just a great job being ready to go ... [we had a] really good plan, really good approach. Really good effort by the boys.”
With a chance to end their weekend trip to Ann Arbor with a statement, the Terps wasted no time in taking the lead. Centerfielder Chris Alleyne doubled to left-center and Cowles lined his 17th homer of the year over the wall in left. Randy Bednar followed with a line-drive solo shot to the same part of the park, and Maryland jumped out to a 3-0 advantage in the first.
“[Alleyne] led us off and Ben comes up and does a great job, obviously, with the home run,” Bednar said. “My approach there is to set it back up ... I wasn’t trying to do too much, just stay within myself and see if I could catch something over the middle of the plate.”
The Wolverines took little time to draw even. In the bottom of the second, back-to-back hits set left fielder Tito Flores up for a three-run home run to left field. Maryland’s lead lasted just an inning and a half and the game was knotted up at 3-3 after two innings of play.
“In the second inning when they scored, it was just kind of two pitches that I hung out over the middle [of the plate] that they really put good swings on,” Burke said.
The momentum returned to the visitor’s dugout in the top of the third. Second baseman Matthew Shaw doubled in the left-center gap and came around to score on a flyout by Alleyne and fielder’s choice by Bednar off of new Michigan pitcher Blake Beers.
Maryland starter Sean Burke settled down and held the Wolverines scoreless in the bottom of the frame, and the Terps set themselves up to add to their lead in the top of the fourth.
Singles from right fielder Troy Schreffler Jr. and catcher Justin Vought put runners on the corners with no outs for Alleyne. Beers spiked a breaking ball into the turf in front of home plate, and Schreffler dashed home to add Maryland’s first run of the inning.
Alleyne beat out an infield single and Shaw added his second double in as many at-bats to push home Vought, chasing Beers after just two-thirds of an inning.
Southpaw Logan Wood took the mound but faced a bases-loaded, one-out spot against designated hitter Maxwell Costes. Costes walked to force in a run, but first baseman Matt Orlando grounded into a double play to spare Wood of any further damage.
The Terps took their 7-4 lead into the bottom of the seventh, as both pitching staffs began to settle in. Burke bounced back strongly after his shaky third inning, surrendering just one hit between the third and sixth frames and sitting down ten batters in a row while striking out seven Wolverines along the way.
It was the Burke outing Maryland was leaning on coming into Sunday’s matchup; few pitchers in the Big Ten can completely shut down Michigan’s lineup, but the Terp’s ace limited the damage wherever he could and gave Vaughn’s lineup time to slowly add to their advantage in this weekend’s penultimate game.
“Burke’s heater plays with anybody, man, [it] does. When he’s ahead of hitters and he’s dominting with his fastball, he’s got a chance,” Vaughn said. “He did a great job of that today against a really good lineup.”
The righty’s afternoon came to an end with one out in the seventh, wrapping up a solid outing against a very talented Michigan lineup. Elliot Zoellner toed the rubber in relief and promptly forced a double play off the bat of Flores, ending the seventh in efficient fashion.
“I cannot say enough good stuff about Elliot Zoellner ... this kid has done every tiny little thing we’ve asked of him over the last four years,” Vaughn said. “Him being such an unbelievably [high] quality human being, buying into what this program has been preaching and doing for the last four years even though it’s been hard at times, deserves everything he [gets].”
The eighth inning brought no offensive success for either squad and left-hander Ryan Ramsey took the mound for the bottom of the ninth. After walking the leadoff man to start the inning, Ramsey buckled down and struck out the dangerous second baseman Ted Burton. He then forced a game-ending double play off the bat of catcher Griffin Mazur to clinch the series victory.
“Beating Michigan is tough. Beating Michigan at their place is even harder,” Vaughn said. “The boys were tremendous today. From the jump they were absolutely tremendous.”
Three things to know
1. Burke continues to turn it up down the stretch. Burke has truly rounded into form towards the end of the season after enduring a tough stretch through the early portion of the season. He’s lowered his season ERA to 3.90 as of Sunday morning and has not surrendered more than three runs in an outing since he gave up four runs in five and two-thirds innings to Big Ten-leading Nebraska on April 9. Sunday’s outing was Burke’s most important of the season to date, as he tossed six and a third innings and gave up three runs on just four hits with eight punchouts to give Maryland a chance to come away with the win.
“I like these games, really. There was a lot on the table and it means something, and those games are extra fun. It’s a good environment to play in, and it’s something I just like doing,” Burke said on pitching in such a pivotal game.
2. Maryland’s offense turned in a performance reminiscent of Friday’s win. The Terps tallied 10 hits in Sunday’s series finale, a dramatic rebound from yesterday’s six-hit, three-run performance. Maryland has proven to be one of the best offenses in the conference and showed that skill with the seven-run performance against a Michigan pitching staff that is second in the Big Ten in team ERA (3.98). The Terps have also turned themselves into a multifaceted offensive attack, scoring with patient at-bats and situational hitting on top of their affinity for the long ball.
3. The Terps have solidified themselves into the top four of the Big Ten. If there were any doubts about how good this Maryland team was before this weekend, they were quieted after this weekend’s performance. A series win against a ranked opponent on the road is crucial to postseason hopes in college baseball and is especially important given Maryland’s recent success against teams below them in the league standings. The Terps proved they can hang with the more successful teams in the top four of the Big Ten and will look to do the same against Indiana in College Park next weekend.
“What our team has done has been spectacular. The turnaround, the amount of series wins, the amount of consecutive series wins ... this team’s a Regional team, there’s no doubt in my mind,” Vaughn said. “If we take care of business and finish second place in the league, I think we’re a postseason team.”