Lee’s late homer leads Terps to Ripken Cup victory over Towson

AJ Lee walked to the plate to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning of a tie game with one thing in mind: be aggressive. With no hesitation, the Maryland third-baseman unloaded on a first-pitch fastball, driving his sixth homer of the season deep over the left-field wall of Ripken Stadium to give the Terrapins a 5-4 lead. They plated another in the inning en route to a 6-5 victory over the Towson Tigers in the third annual Ripken Cup Wednesday.

“I was just trying to attack something early, stay aggressive and get into an advantage count,” Lee said.  “He just left me a good first pitch and I hit it pretty good and gave our team the lead.”

In a season with midweek pitching struggles, Maryland Head Coach John Szefc turned to right-hander Ryan Hill for a second straight non-conference matchup. The junior transfer tossed three hitless innings in his only other start this season, a 6-0 Terps victory at William & Mary on April 19.

This time out, Hill turned in two shutout frames, aided by a Jancarski-Smith-Cieri relay to gun down Billy Lennox at the plate to end the second. John Murphy followed Hill with 1.2 scoreless frames, but the bullpen then ran into trouble. Jamal Wade allowed one run in 1.1 innings before Tayler Stiles and Jared Price combined to surrender three runs in the seventh inning.

It was a back-and-forth affair, as seemingly each time one team scored, the other had an immediate response. Maryland struck first in the fourth inning when Madison Nickens led off the frame with a triple off the base off the right-center field fence and scored on Kevin Smith’s first sacrifice fly of the game. Towson tied it in the subsequent frame when Richie Palacios singled, moved to third after a stolen base and a wild pitch, and scored on an infield single by Colin Gimblet.

Maryland took a 3-1 lead in the sixth on Brandon Gum’s bases-loaded double over the third base bag, but this lead was short-lived. Stiles put two men on in the seventh, and Price provided little relief as the Tigers plated three runs on two RBI singles and an RBI ground out to take a 4-3 lead.

But late rallies have been the key to many of Maryland’s midweek victories this season, and Wednesday’s contest proved no different. Down one in the bottom of the seventh, Will Watson worked a leadoff walk, moved to second on a soft ground out by Nickens and advanced to third on a wild pitch. This hastened the exit for Towson starter Matt Allen, who completed 6.1 innings, in favor of Bo Plagge (0-3), who had previously served as the designated hitter. Kevin Smith greeted Plagge with a sharp line drive to center, which Watson tagged up and scored on to knot the game at 4. After a short deliberation, the umpires ruled that the center fielder caught the ball, giving Smith a sacrifice fly rather than an RBI single.

An inning later, Lee’s homer gave the Terps the lead. Walks to Zach Jancarski and Marty Costes and a Nick Dunn single loaded the bases in front of Watson’s sharp single to left, which plated what was ultimately the decisive run, putting Maryland up 6-4.

“He gives you good at-bats,” Szefc said of Lee. “He’s clearly been one of our best players in the second half of the season.”

The late rally came after the Terps squandered several scoring opportunities early in the game. Dunn led off the second with a walk and Watson followed with a frozen rope double to left, putting men on second and third with no out. Nickens struck out and Smith popped out, however, and after Nick Cieri walked, Lee’s line drive to left field was caught and the Terps stranded the bases loaded. An inning later, a Gum single and a Costes double again put Terrapins on second and third, this time with one out, but Dunn popped out and Watson flied out to end the threat.

Even when the Terps scored, they often left men on base. Towson intentionally walked Costes to load the bases after Gum’s sixth inning two-run double, but Dunn’s fly ball to left ended the threat. In the eighth, after Watson’s RBI single made it 6-4, Nickens struck out and Smith flied out to strand the bases-loaded yet again.

“We left eight guys on base, we left the bases loaded twice, which usually as the home team is the kiss of death, but it’s not like they were off bad at-bats,” Szefc said. “We lined out a few times, and you figure sooner or later something’s gonna fall. We just put ourselves in a bad spot because early in the game we had a guy on third base with less than two outs twice and we were 0-for-3 in that situation.”

Looking to close the game out in the bottom of the ninth, Mike Rescigno (2-1) retired the first hitter before giving up a single to Colin Gimblet, bringing the tying run to the plate. Richard Miller hit a sinking liner to left that Nickens dove for and missed, plating Gimblet to cut the Maryland lead to one run.

Ryan Selmer came on in search of his seventh save of the season, but the Tigers refused to go quietly, loading the bases on a catcher’s interference and an infield single. Selmer struck out Colin Dyer, however, to end the game and secure Maryland’s third straight Ripken Cup. With the victory, Szefc is the first coach in Maryland history with five straight 30-win seasons.

Now back in the win column, the Terrapins travel to Illinois this weekend for a three-game set with the Fighting Illini, beginning Friday at 7 p.m.