Eighth-inning walks doom Terps in 4-2 rubber match loss to Illinois

Three walks and a pair of sacrifice flies broke an eighth-inning tie and doomed Maryland as the Terps fell to the visiting Illinois Fighting Illini in Sunday’s rubber match, 4-2. In a contest in which all six runs crossed on errors, sacrifice flies and bases-loaded free passes, the Illini were able to take advantage of late opportunities to down the Terps and drop them to 3-3 in conference play this season.

Maryland (15-17, 3-3 Big Ten) struggled with runners on base, stranding the bases loaded in the sixth and eighth innings and leaving 12 runners on overall. The Terps went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position on the day.

“Unfortunately, we put three guys on in a row, and they cashed in,” head coach Rob Vaughn said about the eighth inning. “We come back the next inning, put the first two guys on and just can’t execute. Really, that’s the story of the game right there, they executed in the seventh, eighth, ninth and we didn’t.”

Since the beginning of March, Hunter Parsons has been Maryland’s best pitcher, averaging over seven innings per start while surrendering just six total runs. Sunday, the right-hander did not disappoint, as he and Illinois starter Ty Weber matched each other pitch for pitch through the first five frames. But Parsons exited with an apparent injury in the sixth inning of a 1-0 game, and the following innings became a back-and-forth seesaw affair.

Down 1-0 in the sixth after Parsons’ injury, the Terps were able to get to Weber, who had just allowed doubles to Taylor Wright and Justin Morris through the first five frames. AJ Lee opened the bottom of the sixth with a single to right, and Nick Dunn followed with a ground ball through the right side as Lee dashed toward third. Illini right-fielder Jack Yalowitz bobbled Dunn’s hit, however, and Lee ran through Rob Vaughn’s stop sign at third to tie the game.

A pair of walks – one intentional – signalled the exit for Weber, with right-hander Ryan Thompson entering in his place. After striking out Bednar on a full count, the Illinois reliever hit Richie Schiekofer, forcing in Nick Dunn from third base to give the Terps a 2-1 lead, but Morris struck out to leave the bases loaded.

“The biggest thing for us is trying to execute in those situations,” Lee said. “The biggest thing to do that is just knowing who we are as a team and individual players. Just staying in our approach and doing what we do, it’s gonna have to come eventually if we’re going to be a good team.”

Illinois plated three unanswered in the final three frames against a Maryland bullpen that struggled to command the strike zone. The Illini tied it in the seventh when reliever Sean Fisher struck out Grant Van Scoy, but an errant throw to first by Morris led to a collision between Van Scoy and first baseman Kevin Biondic as Michael Michalak scampered home from second base to tie things up.

Mike Vasturia finished the seventh inning, but walked the first hitter he faced in the eighth, ushering in right-hander John Murphy. But the Terps’ closer didn’t fare any better, walking Bren Spillane, and Vaughn elected to bring in Biondic, who in turn walked the first batter he faced to load the bases. The next two hitters, Doran Turchin and Jack Yalowitz, each lifted sacrifice flies to the outfield, plating a pair of runs to give Illinois a 4-2 lead.

Like Weber, Parsons cruised through the first three frames unscathed, but the Illini were able to crack the scoreboard first. The Terps’ starter loaded the bases with one away, and rebounded to strike out the next hitter, but then walked Michael Michalak on four pitches to force in a run. With the bags still full, Parsons went full on Jeff Korte, but froze the Illini catcher to minimize the damage.

That was the only blemish on his line, as he went 5.2 innings, allowing just the one run on three hits and two walks while striking out seven. He retired the first two batters he faced in the sixth, but appeared to be in discomfort after delivering a 1-1 pitch to Turchin, and exited without finishing the at-bat. 

“His [hamstring] just kind of locked up on him a little bit,” Vaughn said. “We just didn’t want to take a chance, you know we’re hoping it’s nothing too serious, we think it was just kind of a cramp and we’ll have a lot more information hopefully in the next day or so.”

After the Terps coughed up the two runs in the top half of the eighth, they had a golden opportunity to strike back in the bottom half. Maryland loaded the bases with two outs on a single, a walk and a hit by pitch, but No.-2 hitter AJ Lee struck out to strand three runners. The Terps got the tying run to the plate in the ninth, after Wright’s two-out single brought pinch hitter Will Watson up, but Gerber struck Watson out to record his eighth save of the season.

The Terps now hit the road for a four-game swing. They’ll travel to Harrisonburg, Virginia, Tuesday to take on James Madison before visiting Ann Arbor for a weekend series against Michigan.