After surviving three elimination games in three days Maryland finally ran out of gas on Sunday.
The Terps fell behind early and never recovered as their Big Ten Tournament run came to an end at the hands of a Northwestern team that will now play for the title.
The Wildcats pushed across three runs in the first and three more in the second, putting enough distance between them and the Terps to overcome a seventh-inning Brandon Gum grand slam in a 6-5 Northwestern victory at Bart Kaufman Field in Bloomington, Ind.
Maryland (37-21) got its first opportunity to put runs on the board in the top of the first when leadoff hitter Zach Jancarski got hit by a pitch and reached third on an errant pickoff throw. Northwestern starter Cooper Wetherbee struck out Marty Costes and Nick Dunn back-to-back, both looking, to end the threat, setting the stage for the Wildcats to grab the advantage in the bottom of the frame.
Hunter Parsons got the first two Wildcats (27-29) in the opening inning on ground balls before giving up a soft single up the middle to Joe Hoscheit. The next hitter, Matt Hopfner, rolled a grounder to short that could have ended the inning, but Kevin Smith hesitated, looking to second before throwing late to first, allowing Hopfner to reach.
Catcher Jack Claeys batted next and made the Terps pay. The 6-foot-2 junior drilled his third home run of the season over the left-field fence to give Northwestern a 3-0 lead. Claeys entered the game slugging just .368 for the season, but the home run was a no-doubter.
The Wildcats added three more runs in the second inning on a procession of soft singles off Parsons and then reliever Ryan Selmer. Northwestern piled up eight hits in the first two innings, but only Claeys’ home run could be classified as “hard-hit.” Still, the Wildcats led 6-0 after scratching across five runs off Parsons and another off Selmer.
“When a three-run deficit turns into a six-run deficit quickly, it’s not just more difficult to come back from it, but it’s also a bit of shot in the chops mentally to your team,” Head coach John Szefc said. “It just blew up on us really quick.”
That cushion would be more than enough for Wetherbee, who pitched one of the best games of his career. The left-hander escaped jams in the first and second and then dominated over the next four innings, allowing just one hit over those four frames. Wetherbee equaled a career-high with nine strikeouts, including three in the fifth when he set down the Terps in order on nine pitches.
“He’s a senior, he’s throwing what could be the last start of his college career, he had a lot of urgency to pitch well,” Szefc said of Wetherbee. “I give him credit on three days rest he was really good. That’s what you hope to get from a senior and that’s what they got.
“He commanded the zone, he attacked hitters, he threw his breaking ball for a strike and we struggled with him, big time.”
Maryland finally got to Wetherbee as he tired in the seventh. Smith started the rally with a single to left, Maryland’s first base knock since the third inning. Pinch-hitter Danny Maynard reached on a walk and after one more hitter, Wetherbee’s day was done. He hurled 6.2 innings and left runners on second and third for reliever Pete Hoffman. When the Wildcats hung on, Wetherbee got the win, running his record to 4-3.
Hoffman walked Zach Jancarski and then went 2-0 to Gum. Perhaps thinking the Maryland first baseman would be taking all the way, Hoffman tossed a fastball right down the middle and Gum deposited it over the left-field wall, adding some drama to the final innings.
“[Lawrence] had just walked Janc[arski] and he was struggling to find it,” Gum said of the at-bat. “His best pitch was a slider and it looked like he didn’t have it, so I was just really looking for a fastball. I didn’t think there was any chance he was throwing a 2-0 slider in that situation, so I was just sitting dead red and got a pitch up over the middle of the plate.”
The graduate transfer’s grand slam was his fourth homer of the year and closed the gap to 6-4.
“It’s a big moment, but you can’t get too high on it,” he said. “Obviously we’re still down two, so we still had a lot of work to do at that point. But it was definitely a sigh of relief, like, ‘We can still win this thing.'”
Gum entered the game hitting .328 for the season before a 2-for-5 performance against the Wildcats that included not only the grand slam, but also a double. His .440 OBP is the best on the team.
“I know some of the questions, I don’t like to read too much into the media stuff, but a lot of the things being said [before the season] were whether I could transition to Big Ten pitching after being in the Atlantic-10 [at George Mason], so it was good to prove I could hit, it doesn’t really matter what conference it’s in,” Gum said.
Maryland rallied again in the eighth off a battered Northwestern bullpen. Hoffman and left-hander Sam Lawrence allowed the first four Terps to reach on two walks, a bunt hit, and a sharp single to right, slicing the Wildcat lead to 6-5. With the bases loaded and one out, though, Lawrence got Jancarski to ground into a 6-4-3 double play. Jancarski dove head-first into the bag, but he was out at first and Maryland’s best chance to even the score slipped away.
Still, Gum says Maryland’s ability to battle back from such a large deficit is indicative of the team’s mental toughness.
“We’re just tough in the box, it doesn’t really matter who’s throwing,” he said. “We’re just never really out of it until the last out is recorded. That’s more mindset than ability because pretty much anybody can hit at this level, it’s whether you’re mentally strong enough to do it.”
Maryland was able to get so close because of stellar work from reliever Ryan Selmer. The tall right-hander entered with one out in the second and, after giving up one run in that inning, held the Wildcats at bay until the eighth.
“When I first started, they were sitting on my fastball and I noticed that after I gave up the two hits to score those runs,” Selmer said. “I started mixing in my slider a lot more and a lot of the time they were biting at it or hitting weak contact.”
He pitched 5.2 innings in his longest outing of the season, allowing just a single run on four hits.
Parsons took the loss to drop to 0-3 this season, while Lawrence picked up his second save of the year.
Northwestern will take on Iowa tonight with a spot in the NCAA Tournament on the line.