COLUMBIA, S.C.—One of the tenets Maryland’s coaches stress to their hitters is not to let the pitcher move their feet. There’s a reason the Terrapins are second in the country in hit-by-pitches.
“Keep your stance and if it hits you, it hits you,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said.
It’s a little thing that paid major dividends on Friday. The Terps finished off a three-run rally in the bottom of the ninth with back-to-back hit-by-pitches, beating Old Dominion 4-3 in the opening game of the Columbia Regional.
The Terrapins aren’t the kind of heavy-hitting team to slug their way back from deficits. Friday’s win was just their second of the season when trailing after six innings and their first when trailing after eight. They need to do the little things right—have good at-bats, get runners over, get timely hits—things they weren’t doing for much of the afternoon.
It would have been understandable if the Terps had an attack of nerves, and Old Dominion did seem to come out the more spirited team. Maryland’s starting lineup featured six underclassmen, and the program also just happened to be playing its first NCAA tournament game in two generations—since 1971.
Nonetheless, Maryland third baseman Jose Cuas said inexperience was not holding the Terps back.
“I wouldn’t say we were nervous,” Cuas said. “I would just say we let the game speed up on us early in the game. Our coaches told us in the fifth, sixth inning, slow the game down, play baseball the way we know how to play, which is being extra aggressive.”
Cuas certainly didn’t have any problems slowing the game down. The sophomore singled up the middle in his first at-bat and ripped a double into the left-center field gap in his second, finishing the day 3-for-4. He just wasn’t getting much help.
The Terrapins stranded seven runners from the third through the sixth innings. At the same time, Old Dominion was maximizing whatever chances it had against Terps ace Jake Stinnett. For the first six innings, the Monarchs scored each time they had a runner reach base, building a 3-0 lead. The Terps appeared to squander their best chance at a comeback when they loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth but managed only one run.
“You just try to stay as positive as you can,” Maryland coach John Szefc said. “Sometimes it gets frustrating because you get here in the NCAA tournament, you expect to be successful. When it doesn’t necessarily happen right away, it really tests your patience. You have to really try to stay positive in the dugout, and our assistants did a really good job of doing that. We just tried to stay with the plan. Go up there and try to take a guy’s fastball away and be on time on a fastball in the zone.”
Score one for the power of positive thinking.
Even as the Terps failed to get the key hits, Szefc sensed the tenor of the game changing in the late innings. Three of the four pitchers Old Dominion used in the game were seniors, including closer Brad Gero, along with six players in the lineup being juniors or seniors. Yet while ODU was the older team, it had never been here before either, making its first NCAA appearance since 2000. In the end, the Monarchs were the team falling prey to the pressure.
“I felt like our hitters weren’t being attacked (by ODU’s pitchers) quite as much as they were being attacked in the first seven innings,” Szefc said, “and that’s when the momentum started to turn.
“They make a pitching change and bring a guy in (Gero in the ninth). A lot of pressure on that guy coming in the game, especially when you get the tying run on base and all of sudden the winning run gets on base. Every pitch that guy throws has got to be with more conviction and with more precision, and sometimes they can make them and sometimes they can’t.”
Control isn’t normally a problem for the sidearming Gero, who had just seven walks in 52 innings on the year, but the wheels came off almost immediately after he came on with one on and one out. Gero got a ground ball from the first hitter he faced, Kevin Martir, but third baseman P.J. Higgins couldn’t handle it. From there, Gero allowed a single, a five-pitch walk, and then the consecutive HBPs to Lowe and Cuas.
The jubilant Terrapins, piling out of the first-base dugout, mobbed Cuas before he even got to first base.
“That’s a really quality win for us,” Szefc said, “because as you’re building your program, to have guys experience that kind of win in the NCAA tournament coming from behind—regardless of how it happened—you can’t put a price on that. So it’s obviously really important for today, but that will pay major dividends for us down the road.”