Early offense leads Maryland past Illinois in series opener

Just moments after third baseman AJ Lee laid down an RBI bunt single in the first inning Friday night against Illinois, shortstop Kevin Smith dug into the box with the bases still loaded.

The junior swung at the first pitch he saw from Illini right-hander Ty Weber, ripping the ball down the left field line, scoring a pair of Terrapins to cap off a three-run first inning during Maryland’s 9-4 win.

“I was just trying to get a fastball I could drive,” Smith said. “I wasn’t really on time with it, but luckily I barreled it up and got it down the left field line.”

The pitch prior to Smith’s eighth double of the season, Lee placed a bunt in a position that caused third baseman Trent Hammond to attempt a bare-handed play. Unable to come up with it, all runners moved to the next base successfully, including center fielder Zach Jancarski at home.

“I saw that the third baseman was back so I had to try it,” Lee said. “If they’re going to play back and give it to me, I got to roll it out there and see what happens.”

After his go-ahead home run in the eighth inning led the Terps to a Ripken Cup victory against Towson on Wednesday, Lee saw his spot in the order rise to sixth, the first time he’s hit from that spot in the lineup in his Maryland career.

“I still [tried] to keep my same approach and same mentality when I [went] to the plate,” Lee said about the change. “But I wasn’t really surprised. I’ve been hitting okay.”

Lee recorded his second RBI single the following inning in the midst of another three-run frame. By the end of the third inning, Maryland already had an 8-0 advantage. Although Maryland starter Brian Shaffer was effective through two frames, the prolonged innings from the Maryland offense forced him to sit on the bench for long periods of time.

A rain delay postponed Shaffer’s start after 38 pitches in two innings against Indiana last weekend, and the coaching staff decided not to send the junior back to the mound when the game resumed the following day. But even after his short outing, the right-hander got off to a quick start against Illinois. He needed just five pitches to record the first three outs, then pitched efficiently again in the next inning to match his workload from last Friday night.

After the Terps jumped out to an eight-run lead, Shaffer struggled in the third inning. He allowed four hits in the frame and three runs, though only one was earned. An error by second baseman Nick Dunn forced in two unearned runs, allowing the Illini to cut the Maryland lead to 8-3.

Right it when it looked like Shaffer had gotten back on track in the fifth — striking out pair of hitters — Illinois continued to crawl back on Jack Yalowitz’s team-leading 11th home run of the year.

Although Shaffer ended his start allowing eight hits, he was also able to strikeout the same amount. He struck out the side in the sixth and then added another pair the following inning. During the game, the junior set his career-high in strikeouts in a single season with 76.

After his extra-base hit in the first inning, Smith helped add an insurance run in the sixth. The infielder sent a ball off the center field wall, scoring Will Watson from first. The triple tied right fielder Marty Costes’ total this season with three. Smith finished the night 2-for-5.

“I think I’m just a little more comfortable,” Smith said about his recent success over the last 10 games. “It’s good to see [the work] come together at the plate and swing at a little better pitches.”

While Smith and Lee combined for five of the team’s nine RBIs, the entire lineup — except Will Watson — recorded a hit. But even Watson, the designated hitter, reached base on three walks.

“We just attacked early. We got two three-spots in the first two innings and then a two-spot in the third inning,” Lee said.  “I think that was big especially with Shaffer on the mound knowing he’s going to be a bulldog up there and good deep into the game to give us good innings.”

Shaffer retired nine straight batters to end his start, finishing his night throwing 111 pitches through eight innings and allowing just two earned runs.

“We wanted to go out there and give [Shaffer] some runs early in the game,” Smith said. “He was kind of pumping so go out there and give him a few runs. He settled in really quickly.”

Right-hander Ryan Hiller entered for the last three outs of the game in a non-save situation. He allowed a pair of base runners, but a ground ball off his foot was chased down by second baseman Nick Dunn, who threw on to first to record the game’s last out.

Maryland will look to clinch the series victory against Illinois tomorrow at 4 p.m.