By Ben Harris
As the ninth inning of Saturday’s 7-5 loss to Rutgers wound down, ominously dark clouds – perhaps a metaphor for what may be the program’s first missed NCAA Tournament in three years – began to fittingly roll across the College Park sky.
Trailing 7-2 in the bottom of the ninth, Kevin Smith did his best to push back the looming storm and prevent a loss that would all but eliminate the Terps from Big Ten postseason play, skying a three-run homer over the batter’s eye in center. It would not be enough.
With the loss, Maryland, who entered the game ninth in the Big Ten, one spot out of the postseason, dropped their second consecutive home conference series. These losses are significant blow to their NCAA Tournament chances, as their at-large resume could have been boosted, if not sealed, by a deep Big Ten Tournament run. However unlikely, with their stellar starting pitching, a run of that magnitude was not out of the question.
In each of his first two innings, Taylor Bloom (6-4) allowed leadoff doubles down the left field line. Both would score, giving the visiting Scarlet Knights an early 2-0 lead. It echoed of Mike Shawaryn’s difficulties with leadoff hitters last night.
By mid game, Bloom looked to have shaken off his early game issues, continuing to attack the zone and getting hitters to pound balls into the turf. High ground ball rates are a good indicator of when the sophomore’s stuff is effective; just when players time up his below-average velocity, but well spotted fastball (82-84 mph today, once touching 85), their over aggressiveness causes them to roll over on a changeup, his best offering (74 mph).
Both pitches exhibit significant arm-side tail and induce groundouts, with the vertical movement on his changeup complimenting his fastball’s run. On the day, 14 Scarlet Knights smothered balls into the turf, two-thirds of Bloom’s 21 recorded outs. Only eight balls left the left the infield in his seven innings. The first six were hits, and the final two, in his final inning, were his first fly ball outs on the day.
After allowing a third inning single to Mike Martinez, Bloom induced an inning ending double play. The fourth inning came and went in seven pitches, all resulting in groundouts, and, to begin the fifth, he got Luke Bowerbank (three RBIs yesterday) to bounce out to first. Each of those five consecutive hitters rolled over on Bloom offerings – all three righties to shortstop and both left-handers to first base.
Milo Freeman, the next hitter, popped up a seemingly insignificant 0-2 pitch about 20 feet down the first base line. A miscommunication between Kevin Biondic charging from first and Justin Morris from behind the plate led to the blooper dropping between them. But, as the ball bounced off the turf spinning toward foul territory, Morris barehanded it keeping it in play.
The following hitter, Gaby Rosa, grounded out to shortstop, the would-be final out had a Terp corralled the infield pop up one batter prior or merely let it kick foul and keep the count at a favorable 0-2 for Bloom. As Freeman advanced to second on the groundout, Maryland intentionally walked R.J. Devish. It was then that Bloom lost the strike zone unlike any time throughout his dominating season.
After a first-pitch strike to Martinez, he threw seven straight balls, missing the zone on 11 of his next 13 offerings. For whatever reason, be it the flubbed infield pop up or the four intentional balls he threw to Devish, Bloom lost his groove. Entering the day with just six walks in 81.1 innings – third best walks per nine and ninth best K/BB ratio in the NCAA – he walked three including the intentional pass, all of which came in succession.
It was Bloom’s worst start of the season, allowing six runs over seven innings and striking out just two, tying a season low.
With two more steals today (Bowerbank 5, Marcinczyk 18), Rutgers tied a single season program record with 106 bags swiped on the year. They’ll go for the record tomorrow. Morris gunned down Milo Freeman to end the second, just the twentieth time this season a Rutgers base runner was cut down stealing.
For the second straight day, Maryland has held Rutgers to two steals, just under their fourth best NCAA mark of 2.13 per game.
Notes: With a two-RBI double pulled down the line, Morris has knocked in runs in consecutive games. John O’Reilly (0-5, 5.37 ERA entering today) picked his first win of the season, striking out three and allowing just one earned run over seven strong innings. Maryland left 12 runners on base compared to Rutgers’ five.