With the tying run 90 feet from home and the Maryland baseball team one out from the NCAA tournament Super Regionals for the second year in a row, closer Kevin Mooney (North Harford) kept throwing curveballs.
The right-hander threw seven straight Monday to UCLA catcher Darrell Miller Jr. in what turned out to be the final at-bat of the night. In Mooney's last regular-season appearance on May 16, he couldn't throw the pitch for a strike and walked four batters. Since then, he's been dominant.
“I just changed one tiny little grip adjustment and I had much better control over it and now I have all the confidence in the world,” said Mooney, who tweaked his curveball grip before the Big Ten Conference tournament. “I could throw it 3-2, two outs with the bases loaded if I wanted to and I would feel 100 percent confident throwing it.”
The final of Mooney's series of breaking balls Monday night bent into the top of the strike zone, freezing Reggie Miller's nephew for Mooney's fifth strikeout of the night as the No. 3-seed Terps eliminated the No. 1 overall seed with a 2-1 victory.
Mooney launched his glove toward the sky as his teammates barreled toward him to celebrate.
He entered Monday's game with a program-record 32 career saves. But none was bigger than the one he locked down against the Bruins in the winner-take-all Los Angeles Regional final to set up a Super Regionals rematch with No. 3-seed Virginia on Friday in Charlottesville, Va.
“It was the No. 1 team in the country, so this was definitely one of the highlights of my career as a Terrapin,” Mooney said. “As far as the Maryland baseball team as a whole, in the whole history of the program, I think this is the top win that we have had, ever.”
Coach John Szefc turned to Mooney after right-hander Taylor Bloom walked the leadoff batter in the seventh inning. While the runner came around to score with the help of an error by second baseman Brandon Lowe, Mooney kept Maryland in front with back-to-back strikeouts to end the frame.
After a 1-2-3 eighth inning, Mooney returned to the mound for the final frame. He struck out the leadoff man and induced a fly ball to right field for two quick outs, but the junior ran into trouble with the Terps one out from advancing.
Mooney was wild with his fastball against third baseman Chris Keck, walking him on five pitches before allowing a first-pitch single to right field on a fastball to put runners at the corners.
With Mooney having labored through 40 pitches, associate head coach Jim Belanger called a conference on the mound. What Belanger told his closer, Mooney can't even remember. Belanger was just trying to calm him down.
Eventually, the coach retreated to the dugout, leaving the fate of the Terps' season on Mooney's right arm with Miller at the plate.
“I knew what I had to do to get him out,” Mooney said. “I'm not sure what the scouting report was, but it had to be [breaking balls] because that seemed to work pretty well for the three games we played them.”
The first curved in for a called strike. The next two missed outside, but Mooney stuck with it for another called strike. On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Miller finally swung at one of his breaking balls. He fouled off two straight curveballs before Mooney rung him up for the third time in three nights.
“Kevin came in and did what he's done for the last three years,” Szefc said during the postgame news conference.
“I don't even know how he does it some of the time and how he stays as consistent as he stays.”
Mooney, an ESPN Maryland Player of the Year in high school, has been dominant all season, but he has been nearly untouchable since the start of the Big Ten tournament, when he made the adjustment to his curveball.
He's notched saves in all six of his postseason appearances. During his 10 scoreless innings since the regular season ended, he's fanned 17 batters while allowing just five hits and one walk.
Now, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound hurler will look to carry his dominance into the rematch with Virginia, which spoiled the Terps' first-ever Super Regionals appearance. Mooney earned a four-out save in the first game last year, but Maryland lost in the next two to end its season.
A year after making their first tournament appearance since 1971, the Terps will look to break through and reach the program's first College World Series by winning their best-of-three series against last year's national runner-up.
“We saw UVA played in that bracket, and we were excited,” Mooney said recalling the selection show.
“We were pumped. Those are the guys we want. They knocked us out last year, and we wanted them again this year.”