Maryland falls to Illinois after wild ninth inning

With the Terps trailing 6-2 in the ninth inning, Illinois right-hander Joey Gerber struck out right fielder Marty Costes with runners on the corners, giving Maryland one last out to work with.

Before the next batter stepped into the box — second baseman Nick Dunn — the Terps were 2-for-20 with runners on base, including 2-for-15 with runners in scoring position. But as head coach John Szefc often says, baseball is a 27-out game and the last one is often the toughest to record.

Dunn doubled to score both runners on base to cut the Maryland deficit to 6-4, extending the game for designated hitter Will Watson, who hit a solo home run in the sixth inning. On a 1-0 count, Watson homered again, scoring both Dunn and himself to tie the game at six in miraculous fashion.

“It was great job by Dunn to get me to the plate. That’s all you can really ask for in that situation is to get the tying run to the plate,” Watson said. “I just put the barrel on it and the ball took care of the rest.”

While Watson’s two big blasts helped the Terps stay in the game, a homer of larger magnitude — Illinois catcher Mark Skonieczny’s walk-off shot off left-hander Andrew Miller — proved to be the difference in an 8-6 finish, capping off a wild ninth inning in Champaign.

Prior to the Terps ninth-inning rally, the offensive struggles were plentiful.

Trailing 4-1 in the top of the seventh inning, left fielder Madison Nickens popped up a safety squeeze just beyond the mound, forcing Illinois left-hander Zak Devermann to making a leaping catch to record the first out of the frame.

After Maryland put runners on the corners with nobody out, Devermann’s outing lasted just one pitch — which sat down Nickens — to set up a potential inning-ending double play. Center fielder Zach Jancarski beat out a ground ball once Illinois made a pitching change, scoring Danny Maynard from third to cut the Illinois lead to two.

While the promising opportunities were abundant for the Terps in the rubber match against Illinois, big hits were not before the ninth inning. First baseman Brandon Gum lined out to right to limit the damage, a missed opportunity after a threatening start to the inning.

“We were having good at-bats overall, Dunn said. “We just couldn’t string enough together in a row to drive guys in.”

The leadoff man reached base for the Terps in each of the first four innings, but all four times, Maryland couldn’t deliver an RBI hit.

“That’s definitely something we have to address moving forward because a lot of times this weekend we left a lot of guys on base in big time situations,” Watson said. “I think if you look back at it we really could’ve pushed the envelope early.”

Before his two home runs, Watson bunted runners into scoring position with only one out in the fourth inning, but a groundout and fly out stranded Dunn and right fielder Marty Costes in scoring position.

The missed chances eventually caught up to the Terps.

Illinois scored three runs after Maryland left its fifth runners on base in as many innings, increasing the Illini lead to 4-0.

“Where we got hurt was our pitchers getting behind in counts,” Szefc said. “If you put good hitters in a hitter’s count you’re not going to be successful. That’s what happened in the last two days.”

Watson’s solo homer in the sixth inning preceded an RBI fielder’s choiceby Jancarski to cut the lead in half, showing potential signs of life.

But once Maryland only mustered a single run after putting runners on first and third with nobody out, Illinois took advantage by scoring twice in the bottom half of the seventh inning. Despite the numerous opportunities to pull away, Illinois gave the Terps another chance to tie the game with one swing.

Maryland loaded the bases with only one out in the top of the eighth, but Gerber entered the game in relief to strike out Maynard looking and Kevin Smith swinging to strand three runners on base.

Gerber, despite evading a jam in the eighth, would create one in the ninth inning, ultimately allowing Maryland to extend the game before the Illini walked off in the bottom half of the frame.

After winning Friday night’s series opener, Maryland dropped the last two games to lose the series, ending its seven-game road trip. The Terps, who finished the trip away from College Park 3-4, have only beaten Rutgers in a conference road series this season.

“We struggle away from home,” Szefc said. “I don’t know exactly what it is but at some point we’ll have the figure the road out or else the road will kill us.”

The Terps will return home on Tuesday at 4 p.m. against UMBC.