COLLEGE PARK — Maryland baseball’s best season in its 131-year history is officially on the line.
After the Terps scored a program-record 23 runs in their victory over Long Island University on Friday night, their bats were kept at bay until the ninth inning in a 10-5 loss to Connecticut in the second game of an NCAA Tournament regional at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium on Saturday night.
Maryland will face Wake Forest, a 10-4 winner over LIU, in an elimination game Sunday at 1 p.m., and the winner will take on UConn at 7 p.m. Should the Huskies lose, a winner-take-all game will be played on Monday to decide who advances to the super regionals.
Maryland sophomore starting pitcher Jason Savacool managed to keep it a one-run game through six innings Saturday, but things began to unravel for the Terps (46-13) in the seventh. With runners on first and second, UConn catcher Matt Donlan crushed a three-run home run off redshirt freshman reliever Nigel Belgrave, giving the Huskies a 6-2 lead.
An inning later, UConn third baseman Zach Bushling belted a two-run homer off Maryland sophomore reliever Gavin Stellpflug, pushing the lead to six and sending Terps fans heading to the exits with their eyes set on Sunday’s win-or-go home matchup.
“UConn just executed a little bit better than we did tonight,” fifth-year Maryland coach Rob Vaughn said. “Nigel came in and made some good pitches there, then just hung one and they didn’t miss it. That’s postseason baseball.”
UConn starting pitcher Pat Gallagher, who coach Jim Penders said unleashed the Mr. Hyde side of him, was effective, allowing two runs on seven hits with six strikeouts in seven innings. Maryland’s top three hitters — sophomore catcher Luke Shliger, fifth-year outfielder Chris “Bubba” Alleyne and junior third baseman Nick Lorusso — went a combined 3-for-14 at the plate. Alleyne, the Big Ten Conference’s Player of the Year, failed to record a hit in five at bats.
Maryland totaled 10 hits after racking up 20 against LIU.
“I think he pounded the strike zone,” said Maryland sophomore shortstop Matt Shaw, who went 2-for-4. “I think we had a lot of loud outs [and] line drives that were caught. And you know, that’s part of baseball.”
Meanwhile, the Huskies were aggressive early, as second baseman David Smith and designated hitter Erik Stock hit back-to-back home runs off Savacool to open the bottom of the first inning. UConn recorded four hits in less than two innings before Savacool began to settle in.
With runners on the corners and one out in the second, Savacool forced third baseman Zach Bushling to hit into a double play to escape the jam.
After Maryland sophomore second baseman Kevin Keister crushed a solo homer to right in the top half of the third, Savacool returned to the mound and recorded two strikeouts to keep the deficit at 2-1.
“Jason did every tiny thing we needed him to do tonight,” Vaughn said. “Unfortunately for us, we couldn’t string enough quality at-bats together.”
Maryland kept the momentum going. After allowing back-to-back two-out singles, Savacool forced Bushling to fly out to center field. In the top of the fifth, Maryland senior first baseman Maxwell Costes (Gilman) walked and junior left fielder Bobby Zmarzlak singled before designated hitter Ian Petrutz hit an RBI single to center to tie the game at 2.
UConn managed to retake the lead in the bottom of the fifth, as Stock scored on a groundout from first baseman Ben Huber. Still, Savacool managed to prevent the game from getting out of hand, recording four consecutive outs.
Savacool pitched six innings, allowing three runs on seven hits and three walks while striking out five.
But, the Terps couldn’t solve Gallagher, as he punched out two batters in the seventh, keeping the sellout crowd of 3,000 silent.
“I think that game could have gone either way in those first seven innings, but we were missing that one big hit,” Shaw said.
In the bottom of the seventh, Belgrave was tasked with keeping the game within striking distance, and he almost did. After hitting Smith and walking Stock to put runners on first and second, the sophomore right-hander struck out back-to-back hitters. However, Donlan made Belgrave pay for grooving a pitch over the heart of the plate, launching it over the center field wall to give UConn a 6-2 lead.
Maryland had a chance to make things interesting in the eighth with runners on first and second, but Shaw fouled out and junior right fielder Troy Schreffler Jr. struck out, slimming the Terps’ chances of a comeback.
Hope was briefly restored in the ninth when Petrutz launched a three-run homer, his second of the game, but Alleyne grounded out and Lorusso struck out to close out the evening.
Vaughn told his team after the game to not show up to the field if they don’t believe they can make a comeback. But he knows the Terps are a resilient group, and with junior pitcher Nick Dean starting against Wake Forest, they have a fighting chance.
“We’re going to have a lot of energy and focus and try to play good baseball,” Vaughn said.
NCAA Tournament regional elimination game
WAKE FOREST VS. MARYLAND
At College Park
Sunday, 1 p.m.