Trinity Schlotterbeck hit a ground-ball single in the hole that scored the first run of the game and gave Maryland softball a 1-0 lead over Iowa in the sixth inning. Pitchers Courtney Wyche and Iowa’s Breanna Vasquez had gone head-to-head for five straight innings, neither giving an inch in the battle between two of the Big Ten’s best.
It felt like Schlotterbeck’s RBI would be the run that Maryland needed to secure the win. The Terps were overjoyed, thinking that they had potentially wrapped up a road series sweep against a top conference team.
But the team still had two innings to go.
Softball is a fickle game, and Iowa fought back in the final frame. The Hawkeyes, who had only managed to scratch across three hits through six innings, started the seventh with a one-out single. After a passed ball and a walk, coach Mark Montgomery decided to bring in freshman closer Keira Bucher.
The freshman got one out, putting the Terps one away from securing the win. But a critical mistake cost them victory.
Bucher forced a hard ground ball to third, where Michaela Jones squared up the ball. She looked like she might be able to make the play to end the game, but the ball knocked off her shoulder and dribbled away from the junior as the Hawkeyes tied the game.
Iowa walked it off during the next at-bat, stunning the Terps with a crushing loss. The final inning showed how hard it is to win close games, something Maryland has struggled with recently.
The Terps have lost five games by three or less runs in Big Ten play. Montgomery has preached constant attention as something required to win those types of games.
“We’re not taking [plays] off but we’re just not as dialed in as an intentional,” Montgomery said before the Iowa series.
Jones’ play in the field against the Hawkeyes is one example, but there have been other plays that have cost the Terps late in games.
Maryland held a 3-0 lead heading into the final inning against Rutgers on April 5. Instead of cruising to a victory, the Terps surrendered three walks in the final inning and the Scarlet Knights capitalized, scoring four runs in the seventh frame to give them a 4-3 comeback win.
The Terps have had an extremely solid defense this season despite multiple late game collapses, ranking second in the conference in fielding percentage. But when games get tight, so do players, and making a critical play to end a game could be the difference in the outcome of a season.
Montgomery thinks that some of the internal pressure that players are putting on themselves is causing mistakes.
“We all want to make the NCAA tournament, there’s no question, but that’s where we want to go. What we need to be fighting on is who we want to be,” Montgomery said. “That’s where it’s hard because the focus starts to get put on where we want to go and not who we want to be.”
Making the NCAA tournament is a tall task, but not out of reach for the Terps. Seven Big Ten teams made the 64 team field last season, but Maryland wasn’t one of them despite notching the fifth-best conference record.
This season, the Terps rank tenth in the conference in league record, but have the fourth highest overall win total. They are on the cusp of the NCAA tournament with about a month remaining, and overcoming late errors and winning close conference games will help propel them to their goal.
“If you are dialed in and intentional in every single play, it’s exhausting,” Montgomery said. “I think that our players need to be a little more exhausted.”