Right-hander Sean Leland needed six pitches one inning earlier Wednesday to close the door on Maryland baseball’s latest threat, stranding a runner on second and preserving a tie game for Illinois.
But Leland’s effectiveness quickly waned in the eighth. His third pitch of the frame beat the shift off third baseman Taylor Wright’s bat, dribbling into left field where the shortstop should have stood. Leland’s fourth pitch was rocked down the left-field line and into the stands from first baseman Maxwell Costes, restoring the Terps’ lead.
Leland’s seventh pitch of the inning plunked left fielder Michael Pineiro on the knee, setting up his 10th pitch, another moonshot to left — this time via catcher Justin Vought — giving Maryland a commanding edge in what had been a pitchers’ duel just moment’s before Costes, the Big Ten freshman of the year, blasted his team-leading 13th home run this season.
The Terps’ first-round win over Illinois, 6-2, continues a hot end to the campaign. Coach Rob Vaughn’s squad needed wins in its final weekend to make the Big Ten tournament — and even then, help elsewhere was required to make sure a sweep over Iowa wasn’t for naught.
One year after missing out on the conference tournament, Maryland displayed its explosive potential. Once left-hander Andy Fisher was chased in the seventh, the Terps broke through the Illini’s bullpen. And with right-hander Hunter Parsons dealing for Maryland into the eighth, right-handers Mark DiLuia and John Murphy combined to seal the win.
After peppering the zone with strikes through the first two innings, Fisher missed outside on four straight pitches to center fielder Chris Alleyne to lead off the third. Then, a high chopper back to the mound from designated hitter Josh Maguire tipped off the top of Fisher’s glove and landed in no-man’s land to set up the Terps with two on and no outs.
Second baseman Benjamin Cowles bunted the pair into scoring position, and shortstop AJ Lee walked to load the bases. Right fielder Randy Bednar hit a sharp grounder that sent Illinois shortstop Branden Comia to his right, flipping back to second for a force play that scored Alleyne from third.
A one-run lead looked like a formidable edge for Maryland, with Parsons finding the corners with his fastball and breaking ball, his sinker forcing groundball outs to six of the first nine batters he faced — he scattered one flyout and two punchouts in the mix.
The last time Parsons faced the Illini, a 4-2 win in early April, the senior ace lasted eight innings, allowing two runs and six hits. On Wednesday in the Big Ten tournament, he maneuvered his way out of trouble in the fourth. A pair of two-out walks — the latter following an 11-pitch at-bat — loaded the bases and drove his pitch count up.
But Parsons forced right fielder Jack Yalowitz to ground out to Cowles at second, ending a 28-pitch frame and maintaining the 1-0 advantage. Two runners found their way on in the fifth too, though, after a leadoff single and two-out free pass.
This time, Illinois would find its way onto the scoreboard. As Cowles ranged to his right, chasing a hard-hit grounder into the outfield grass, the ball skipped off the palm of his glove. Illini third baseman Grant Van Scoy didn’t stop running, rounding third and beating Cowles’ throw home with a head-first dive to tie the game.
In Maryland’s regular-season ending sweep over Iowa, Vaughn’s squad quickly bounced back from setbacks with runs. Maryland had the chance to follow a similar trend Wednesday, getting two runners on with one out in the sixth. Fisher uncorked a wild pitch with two away to move both into scoring position.
But Vought struck out before the errant pitch and Alleyne popped up into foul ground near the Terps’ dugout to end the threat. And in the seventh, Maguire led off with a double over Cam McDonald’s head in left field. Cowles couldn’t move him, though. Comia feinted a pick-off attempt, drawing Maguire back to the base right as Cowles bunted straight back to Fisher.
The southpaw was pulled following that sequence, scattering five hits and allowing one run through 6 ⅓ innings. Leland entered and ended the threat, needing six pitches to force Lee to pop up and strike out Bednar, stranding Maguire at second.
The floodgates opened on Leland in the eighth, though, with two-run shots from Costes and Vought creating a 5-1 edge. Alleyne’s drag bunt added an insurance run in the ninth.
Parsons, already in line for the win, entered again in the bottom half of the eighth and gave up a leadoff single. He then forced a lazy flyout to left, and Vaughn made the trek to the mound.
Parsons’ teammates patted him on the back, having allowed just one run through 7 ⅓ innings. The Fruitland native’s eight innings in the series opener against Iowa had set up Maryland’s run to the Big Ten tournament. And his solid outing in the first round Wednesday, becoming the second pitcher in program history to record at least 10 victories in a season, ensured the Terps’ winning streak continues.