It was AJ Lee’s birthday, but it was Lee giving the Terps a gift in the first inning of Friday’s game.
The newly-minted 20-year-old hit a three-run home run over the left-field fence in that opening inning, jumpstarting a 8-5 Maryland win over No. 1 seed Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament at Bart Kaufman Field in Bloomington, Ind.
Lee stepped to the plate in the first with runners on first and second in a scoreless game. After working a full count, he ripped a pitch from Nebraska starter Ethan Frazier deep into the night sky, scoring Brandon Gum and Nick Dunn and putting the Terps ahead 3-0.
“He (Frazier) had been struggling with his fastball command, and he threw me two fastballs in the zone that I fouled off,” Lee said of his first at-bat. “He got me to two strikes and threw me a slider and I just put a good swing on it and it happened to go out. It was big to get our team on the board first there and let us relax a little bit.”
Nebraska (35-20-1) got one run back immediately off Maryland’s freshman starter Tyler Blohm in the bottom of the inning. Leadoff hitter Angelo Altavilla drove his first home run of the season to a similar spot to Lee’s blast to slice the Terp lead to 3-1.
Blohm settled in after that, though, and despite needing 34 pitches to get through the first inning put together one of his most dominant starts of the season. The freshman left-hander struck out a career-high 10 Cornhuskers and the first seven outs he recorded all came via the strikeout.
“They (Nebraska hitters) were a little bit behind velo-wise, we thought, so he just stayed with the hard stuff,” head coach John Szefc said of Blohm. “They just weren’t catching up to it for the most part.”
While Blohm was mowing down Nebraska hitters, Maryland’s offense was putting more distance between the Terps and the Cornhuskers. Lee walked to lead off the fourth and Nick Cieri followed with a bloop single to right. Kevin Smith, owner of a team-high 10 home runs, hit next and laid a perfect bunt down the third base line for a hit, loading the bases with nobody out.
Senior Madison Nickens, who was hitting just .217 coming into the game, cleared the bases when he slashed a line-drive triple to the gap in left-center. It was his third three-bagger of the season and extended Maryland’s lead to 6-1. The Terps added a seventh run when Justin Morris bounced an infield single up the middle and Nickens scored. The Terrapins (36-20) sent nine batters to the plate in the inning and tallied four runs.
Blohm held the lead until the fifth. In that frame, he walked Mojo Hagge and surrendered an infield single to Scott Schreiber, putting two on with nobody out. After a flyout, Blohm’s night was finished. He threw 107 pitches in 4.1 innings, allowing five hits and three runs, to go along with those 10 strikeouts. For the first time in his 15 starts this season, Blohm did not get a decision.
Jared Price took over for Blohm, but that didn’t stop the parade of Cornhusker whiffs. The senior right-hander hit as high as 98 on the stadium radar gun and punched out five Nebraska hitters over a season-high 4.2 innings.
When asked what was working for him, Price didn’t hesitate.
“Fastball location,” he said. [Pitching coach Ryan] Fecteau came in there and said throw as hard as you can for as long as you can so that was my mentality going in.”
Nebraska chipped away off Price, though, putting two runs on the board in the sixth with the help of an error on Nick Dunn at second base. By the time Price walked off the mound in the eighth, the Cornhuskers had trimmed their deficit to just two at 7-5.
Maryland made any comeback bid more difficult in the top of the ninth when it plated an insurance run. Morris and Zach Jancarski drew back-to-back walks to open the inning and a wild pitch moved them up a base. Later in the inning, Marty Costes singled through the left side of a drawn-in infield to provide the final Terps tally.
Price returned to the mound for the ninth and gave up just a one-out single before closing the door on the Cornhuskers with a double play.The final out was recorded at 1:23 a.m. It was the first time Price had pitched more than two innings all season and it was enough to get him his first win since his sophomore season in 2014.
“That was probably the best outing of his career, obviously in a really important game so I’m really happy for Jared,” Szefc said of Price. “That was as good as I’ve seen him in five years. That’s not a knock on the other years, that’s a compliment to tonight, because that (Nebraska) is a good team.”
Szefc said he had never seen Price throw 98 before.
“Never. I’ve seen him at 95 before but not 98,” the fifth-year Maryland coach said. “But the biggest difference for Jared wasn’t really the velocity, it was the fact that he was throwing consistent strikes, didn’t walk a guy.”
Lee’s home run extended his career-long hit streak to 14 games, and he’s hitting nearly .350 over that span. Smith and Morris each recorded two hits in the game for the Terps.
Nebraska’s Jake Schleppenbach homered in the fourth off of Blohm, pulling the ball over the right-field fence. It was his fifth home run of the season and second off of Blohm.
Nebraska starter Frazier took the loss, dropping his record to 2-1. He was not originally slated to start, but scheduled starter Jake Meyers’ arm tightened up between Nebraska’s two games Friday and he did not play. Frazier only last 1.1 innings before he too was sidelined with an arm injury.
The Terps will take on Northwestern at 1:30 p.m. ET Saturday in the tournament semifinals.