By Ben Harris
With a trip to the Big Ten Tournament on the line Saturday, it looked as though Brian Shaffer’s day might be over as quickly as it started. Just four pitches into the regular season finale, Michigan State’s leadoff hitter Brandon Hughes sharply grounded a ball back up the box off of Shaffer’s right knee. The ball helplessly skittered into foul territory down the first base line, and Shaffer lay on the ground, leg outstretched and in pain.
After a lengthy delay, he couldn’t pull the trigger on his first warm-up pitch, wincing as he pushed off the mound with his right leg.
“I just took a stride and my knee buckled,” said Shaffer after the game. “For a second I thought, ‘uh oh,’ but it just had to loosen back up it was really tight.”
But, the tenacious right-hander gritted his teeth and fought the discomfort, carrying Maryland to a 6-4 win and into the conference tournament.
When it was all said and done, he had thrown 126 pitches over eight innings, allowing four runs and keeping Maryland in the game long enough for the offense to break through.
Head coach John Szefc wasn’t sure he would be even be able to stay in the game.
“When I went out there I thought it was maybe 50-50 that he might continue,” he said.
One batter after Hughes’ ground ball caught his knee, Shaffer walked Jordan Zimmerman, the Big Ten’s leading hitter, on four pitches. Dan Durkin then singled up the middle for his first RBI on the day to score Hughes. In all three games this series, the Terps trailed 1-0 after two innings.
After those first three hitters Shaffer settled in, getting Matt Byars to ground into a double play to alleviate the first inning pressure. From the second through the eighth, Shaffer allowed just six hits and three runs while striking out five.
Inning after inning, Maryland refused Michigan State the opportunity to put the game out of reach. A two-run bottom of the third, courtesy of Dan Durkin’s homer, gave the Spartans an early 3-0 lead. However, the Terps manufactured two runs in the next half inning to cut the lead to 3-2.
The Spartans tacked on another in the bottom half of the fourth after a Kris Simonton triple and a squeeze bunt from Justin Hovis. Again, Maryland responded in the following frame with a run of their own. Marty Costes broke his 0-15 slump (0-13 to begin the series) with a two-out single. Nick Dunn then knocked an RBI double to left, his second on the day and third of four total hits.
But for Maryland, their most important inning of the season came in the seventh. Like so many times in the second half of the season, sophomore catalyst Zach Jancarski sparked the Terps offense with a leadoff walk when they needed it most. Two outs later Dunn grounded a single up the middle, advancing to second as Jancarski’s wheels propelled him from first to third, drawing a throw.
With two men in scoring position, reliever Keegan Baar was pulled for Cam Vieaux, Michigan State’s ace. Vieaux, who has been battling injury, received the weekend off from his regular starting duties. For head coach Jake Boss, the move made sense, especially after their win yesterday clinched a Big Ten Tournament bid.
Saturday marked the first time since 2014 that Vieaux pitched out of the bullpen. And it showed. After hitting just five batters all season, his first pitch – a rogue slider – caught Kevin Smith on the foot to load the bases. He had seemingly bounced back against the next batter, jumping ahead of freshman Dan Maynard 0-2. But Maynard worked the count to 2-2 before wearing a pitch from Vieaux, tying the game at four with an RBI hit by pitch.
The very next offering from Vieaux was laced the opposite way by sophomore Kevin Biondic (3-4 on the day), putting the Terps ahead for good, 6-4.
“Just hopped on that first fastball,” Biondic said after the game. “That’s our approach. Look for something to hunt and it was over the plate and luckily I hammered it.”
“I think a big part of that game was Brian’s ability to minimize damage,” said Szefc. “He never gave up a three-run inning. I say it all the time, it’s hard to win when you give up a three-run inning and that’s what they did in the seventh.”
The win solidified the Terps’ second conference tournament appearance in as many season in the Big Ten. They will enter play Thursday as the sixth seed.
Had they lost, Maryland would have needed John Szefc’s predecessor Eric Bakich and his Michigan Wolverines to beat Illinois Saturday afternoon.
Notes: Freshman Nick Dunn posted his second four-hit game of the season (March 1 at Delaware) with two singles and two opposite field doubles. Eight hits is the second most Shaffer has allowed this season (nine against Minnesota, April 16). Andrew Bechtold snapped his ten-game reached-base streak. Shaffer’s 126 pitches were the third-most thrown by a Maryland starter this season. Exactly one year ago Saturday, Shaffer snapped Illinois’ NCAA-best 27-game winning streak in the second game of the Big Ten Tournament.