CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.—It was a slog. But that’s just the way Maryland likes it.
The Terrapins and Virginia opened Saturday’s super regional action with a 12:05 p.m. start time. An hour later, Texas Tech and College of Charleston got underway. When the game in Lubbock finished up at 3:15 ET, the game in Charlottesville was still plodding through the eighth inning.
It was a white-knuckle affair for three hours, 41 minutes, but by now Maryland has proven that it does not wilt under pressure. Maryland pitchers stranded 14 baserunners, as Virginia went 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position, and the Terrapins battled their way to a 5-4 win in the opening game of the Charlottesville Super Regional.
“That’s a typical game that we’ve been playing lately against good people,” Maryland coach John Szefc said. “Obviously the opponent was very good, and they were playing in their park. That’s just kind of a grind-it-out kind of game where, for me, it’s not necessarily about how good you are, it’s about how tough you are. We’ve got some good players, and obviously they do too. I guess maybe we just did enough today to be a little tougher in the ninth. I know they’re as tough as anybody in college baseball, but I think our guys are pretty tough too.”
It was billed as a battle between aces Jake Stinnett of Maryland and Nathan Kirby of UVa., but neither had his best stuff or command Saturday. The Terrapins jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the first inning when Charlie White doubled to lead off the game, was sacrificed to third and scored on a groundout. The Cavs answered with a run in the first and another in the third to take a 2-1 lead, but the Terps surged ahead for good with three runs in the fourth inning, highlighted by doubles by Blake Schmit and Anthony Papio. Kirby repeatedly left his fastball and his slider up and over the middle of the plate, and it caught up with him in the fourth. Maryland chased him with another run in the fifth to take a 5-2 lead.
“He just didn’t look sharp to me out there,” Virginia coach Brian O’Connor said of Kirby. “I didn’t think he looked real sharp even in the first or second inning. Usually his velocity’s a little bit better, usually that breaking ball’s down a little more. But to Maryland’s credit, when he made pitches up in the zone, they capitalized on it and did a great job. That’s what you want your offensive team to do.”
Veteran Kyle Convissar’s at-bat in the second inning was a perfect example of Maryland’s tenacious offensive style. Convissar fouled off pitch after pitch during a 16-pitch at-bat that ended in a walk.
“That’s as good an at-bat as you’re going to see, and that epitomizes our team, I think,” Szefc said. “He kind of showed the true grit of our offense, I thought. Not to mention, it raises Kirby’s pitch count, and the more pitches he throws, the closer he is to getting out of the ballgame.”
Stinnett wasn’t his best either, allowing Cavaliers to reach third base in five of the six innings he worked, but he limited them to just three runs. He got help from his defense, which made three standout defensive plays behind him in the first six innings, including a brilliant diving catch by White in center field in the first. Mike Papi tried to tag up from third and score on the play, but he hesitated a few feet from the bag before going back to the bag and tagging, and he was thrown out at the plate. Shortstop Schmit, who clearly did not expect to have a shot to get Papi at the plate, made a heads-up relay throw home for the out.
“That catch is as good as hitting a double with the bases loaded, because he takes two runs off the board,” Szefc said. “So that might not show up in the statistics column, but believe me, everybody in that dugout knows how important that was . . . This is a tough place to play coming in against these guys. Everybody knows they’re supposed to be successful, everybody knows they’re supposed to win. So to get out and minimize there was crucial.”
The Terrapins kept on minimizing in the late innings, as Virginia put runners in scoring position in each of the final three frames but mustered just one run. Closer Kevin Mooney recorded the final four outs for his 13th save, stranding the tying run at third base in the eighth and at second base in the ninth. It was a familiar formula for the Terrapins, who stranded 19 baserunners in two games last week against South Carolina.
“They escaped a lot of jams today, the fact that we left 14 runners on base,” O’Connor said. “They’ve shown an ability to wiggle and figure things out to not have the big inning. That’s to their credit. We had opportunities certainly to really open it up with another big hit, a multi-run inning, and we just couldn’t do it. That’s to Stinnett’s credit for rising up, and to their relievers.”
O’Connor said he was actually pleased with his team’s offensive approach Saturday; even when it stranded baseunners, the final out was often a hard-hit ball that went right to a Maryland defender. So there is reason to believe Virginia could be on the verge of an offensive breakout later in the weekend—this super regional is far from over.
But Maryland heads into Sunday just one win away from its first trip to the College World Series, in its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1971. O’Connor said he saw similarities between Maryland’s style of play and the way his Cavaliers approached the game when he first took over a program with similarly little baseball tradition just over a decade ago.
“I recall back to when we started this thing 11 years ago, I’d probably say that we played with a chip on our shoulders, with something to prove,” O’Connor said. “Looking at Maryland’s approach in the batter’s box and defensively and on the mound, it seems like there’s a calm confidence to them. They’re doing a great job, and they’ve earned the right to be here.”