It’s tough to keep up with Brian Shaffer.
Northwestern pitcher Cooper Wetherbee tried on Friday and matched zeroes with the Maryland ace for four innings, but the Terps offense broke through and Shaffer just kept rolling along with another in a string of shutdown performances.
The junior right-hander Shaffer threw eight innings of one-run ball, striking out a eight, and giving up just six hits to lead the Terps to a series-opening 7-1 win over Northwestern Friday at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium in College Park.
“[Shaffer] holds them at bay and gives our guys time to get on the board,” head coach John Szefc said. “That’s what responsible Friday night starters do. [Mike] Shawaryn did it for a long time, Jake Stinnett did it here, Jimmy Reed did it here. We’ve been really fortunate to have what I would call very responsible Friday night starters. Every college program needs one.”
It was Shaffer’s seventh win of the season—against two losses—and the 20th of his career, tying him with John Rayne for second on the all-time Maryland list behind only Mike Shawaryn, who finished his collegiate career with 30 victories. Shaffer lowered his Big Ten-leading ERA to a minuscule 1.72 and added to the single-season career-high in strikeouts he set last week against Illinois. The Pylesville native has punched out 91 hitters this season.
Wetherbee was sharp to open the game and the two teams were locked in a scoreless tie through four innings. Shaffer and Wetherbee needed just 89 combined pitches as they zipped through those first four frames.
“They’re throwing who they think is their best guy out there,” Szefc said of Friday games. “Regardless of how good he is, he’s going to give them a good start and he’s going to make it difficult for your team to score runs. That’s the typical Friday night right there for four innings.”
In the fifth, though, Maryland’s offense woke up. AJ Lee singled to left center and Kevin Smith followed with a grounder to short that got through for another hit. Later in the inning, Zach Jancarski roped a single to left to score the first run of the game, plating Lee. Then, facing Brandon Gum, Wetherbee let loose a wild pitch that allowed Smith to scamper home, making it 2-0.
After Northwestern (19-28, 8-11 in the Big Ten) went quietly in the top of the sixth, the Terps broke the game open in the bottom half. It didn’t look like they would after Nick Dunn got picked off second with one out, leaving just Will Watson on first with two away. But Watson stole second and then came home on another hit for Lee, his third of the day.
Smith was up next and, after hitting a long, loud foul ball down the left field line, deposited a 3-2 pitch far over the wall in left-center for his ninth homer of the season. He knew the blast, which put his team in front 5-0, was gone off the bat and began trotting right out of the batter’s box.
— MD Baseball Network (@mdbaseballnet) May 12, 2017
The home run also leapfrogged Smith past Marty Costes and into the team lead with 35 RBIs on the season. Costes pulled even in the seventh when he drove a single to right to make it 6-0.
“We’ve talked about it [the RBI lead] a few times, I mean it’s all fun and games,” Smith said. “When he gets he’ll point over to me to let me know and vice-versa. So, you know, it’s fun just because a lot of them come with two outs or big hits, so RBIs are always fun to get. It’s kind of a tribute to all the guys getting on in front of you.”
Smith retook the team RBI lead in the eighth when he hit what looked like a deep fly to left. The ball kept carrying and eventually landed beyond the wall just to the right of the sign marking the Terps’ trips to the NCAA Super Regionals. It was his 10th home run of the season, extending a career-high he’d set earlier in the game.
“It was a hanging slider, maybe a little in,” Smith said of the pitch he hit for his second home run. “I was out in front a little bit, but I got a little barrel on it.”
With Lee, who went 3-4 with an RBI single, Smith, who now leads the team in home runs and RBIs, hitting in the second half of the lineup, respectively, the Terps’ lineup is longer than most other teams.
“I think we’re dangerous because we can score in any inning,” Smith. “You can’t get through our first three batters and then cruise through the rest of our lineup until you get back to the top. We take pride in that, we don’t care where we hit in the order, we take pride in trying to score wherever we are and contribute to the team.”
Shaffer gave up his only run in the eighth when pinch-hitter Grant Peikert drove a double off the wall in left and Connor Lind scored from first. Shaffer needed just 89 pitches to get through eight innings.
Szefc said Shaffer could have gone back out to pitch the ninth if needed.
“He would have been fine [if he had pitched the ninth], but anytime you can protect an arm like that you try to protect him as much as you can,” Szefc said. “I’d like to think our bullpen can get three outs with a six-run lead at home in the ninth and they did.”
Outside of Smith, Maryland’s offensive star was Lee, who went 3-for-4 and scored twice. He’s now hitting .326 for the season, the third-best mark on the team.
“I think a lot of it was just taking the borderline pitches that are balls, taking the ball below the knee that a lot of people like to swing at and just getting into hitters’ counts,” Lee said. “And then you can really work in your approach and get into 2-0 counts and hit balls hard.”
Jancarski and Costes tallied multi-hit games, as well.
The win was Maryland’s 20th at home this season, running the Terps’ record at Bob “Turtle” Smith Stadium to 20-1, good for the best home winning percentage in the country. It was also the team’s 15th conference victory, equaling a program record for conference wins in a single-season last achieved in 2013.
John Murphy finished the game for Maryland (33-15, 15-7), pitching a scoreless, hitless ninth. He lowered his ERA to 1.33 in 20.1 innings.
Wetherbee worked six innings for the Wildcats, allowing five runs on eight hits. He only walked one, but didn’t strike out anyone. He falls to 2-3 on the season.