After a 21-run performance from the Wolverines two days ago, the excitement continued for the Michigan baseball team on Friday night in College Park.
At one point in the game, the Wolverines faced a seven-run deficit and looked all but defeated. This was until “Mr. Reliable” — grad-transfer center fielder Joe Stewart — stepped up to the plate.
With one out in the seventh inning, Stewart took advantage of the bases being loaded by hitting a line drive through the second and shortstop gap, scoring two runs for Michigan.
Immediately after, grad-transfer third baseman Matt Frey carried that momentum, driving a moon shot over the high center field wall, blasting a three-run home run for the Wolverines to make it a brand new ball game.
Despite the late offensive push, the Wolverines (25-22 Overall, 10-9 Big Ten) ultimately could not overcome their thin bullpen as they lost 8-7 to No. 18 Maryland (39-10, 14-5) in the first game of the series.
Although Michigan defeated the Terrapins 7-4 earlier this season in the Keith Leclair Classic, Maryland is a very different team now. The Terrapins have been on a tear up to this point. In the past month, the Terrapins have won every series they’ve played.
“They were undefeated when we faced them early,” Michigan coach Erik Bakich said. “(This time), they had a lot of confidence and they set the school record for wins tonight. They’re a complete team and (they) could really make some noise in the postseason.”
The start of the game looked to be a one-sided affair for Maryland. Michigan started the game with junior right-hander Noah Rennard on the mound instead of the usual Friday night starter sophomore left-hander Connor O’Halloran.
“We needed to do something different,” Bakich said. “We’ve been giving up a lot of runs late in games these last few weeks, so (I thought) we could flip the script and start using matchups and openers. (This strategy) would enable us to have our starters in the middle and end of the game.”
The Terrapins welcomed this approach with open arms.
With two outs in the bottom of the first inning, Maryland third baseman Nick LaRusso and shortstop Miles Shaw hit back-to-back home runs off of Rennard to begin the scoring.
The Terrapins continued to capitalize in the fourth inning as well. Despite a pitching change that brought O’Halloran — whose typical role is as a starter — into the game from the bullpen, Maryland got itself into scoring position again with a bunt that advanced two runners to second and third. The Terrapins followed that up with a single, double and a two-run home run that scored five in the inning and gave them a commanding 7-0 lead.
But that seven run lead wouldn’t be enough for Maryland.
For the Wolverine bats, the hitting appeared to be non-existent through the first five innings. Terrapins right-hander Jason Savacool allowed just one hit through the first five while striking out seven of the first 10 batters he faced.
This all changed, though, in the sixth inning, when junior first baseman Jake Marti got Michigan on the board with a solo home run.
And as the Wolverines found a spark, they used the Maryland pitching change to build momentum.
Behind clutch hits from Stewart and Frey, they tied the game at seven apiece and were right back in the thick of the game with all of the momentum swinging their way.
“I have (known) all season that our offense is elite,” Bakich said. We can score seven runs in any game and have the ability to explode for a beginning at any time, which is why we don’t worry when we’re in a deficit. It’s about holding the opposition down.”
And Frey echoed his coach’s thoughts.
“We’re never out of it,” Frey said. “I think as we’ve shown time and time again, we could be down 10-0 or 7-0, it doesn’t matter. The way we train and practice, (Bakich) is relentlessly positive.”
Despite the Terrapins’ production off of O’Halloran in the first half of the game, Bakich left him in. Because Michigan used 14 pitchers during their midweek games, the bullpen was thin for Bakich in the series opener. But sticking with O’Halloran proved to pay off for Bakich as he settled down and threw three scoreless innings after the early scoring affair.
In the eighth, however, O’Halloran appeared to hit a wall. After back-to-back walks, Bakich decided to leave him in. O’Halloran proceeded to throw two balls in the dirt that scored a run for Maryland and put the Terrapins on top once again, 8-7.
“I have no issues with how we competed tonight,” Bakich said. “We just needed to be better from an execution standpoint.”
The Wolverines didn’t go down in the ninth without a fight, though. After a walk and a stolen base, Michigan found itself in scoring position with no outs. Two strikeouts and a flyout stranded junior outfielder Jordon Rodgers at second and with it, the Wolverines’ hopes of completing an incredible comeback.
Michigan proved its ability to fight, but at the end of the day it wasn’t enough as Maryland squeaked out a close win.