Maryland baseball outlasted Nebraska in the Big Ten Tournament Semifinals on Saturday afternoon, securing a 4-2 victory for its third consecutive win of the tournament. While the Terps continued their struggles at the plate, it was the pitching staff that lifted the squad to the conference championship game.
Jason Savacool starred on the mound, scattering four hits across six scoreless innings along with six strikeouts. Maryland’s pitching, a major concern entering the postseason, has more than held up, as the unit has only allowed five earned runs through three games.
“[Savacool] was outstanding,” Maryland coach Rob Vaughn said. “What I told him after his outing, I said you really established the heater. When you establish the heater, they gotta respect the secondary stuff. We talk a lot about walking the line for him on pitching with emotion and not being emotional, and that’s what I thought he did a great job of. What an unbelievable start for him.”
It was an uncharacteristic day at the plate for Maryland’s one through three hitters, as Luke Shliger, Matt Shaw and Nick Lorusso combined to finish 0 for 11. The rest of the lineup, however, picked up the slack. The bottom five hitters in the Terps lineup went 9 for 19 at the plate. Jacob Orr led the team with three hits, including a pair of timely ones when the rest of the lineup struggled in the later innings.
Nebraska got within two runs in the ninth after the Huskers began the inning with three walks. With Andrew Johnson on in relief for a wild Nigel Belgrave, Max Anderson belted a ball to the warning track with two on and two outs , before being caught by right fielder Matt Woods to likely end Nebraska’s season.
The Terps entered facing a familiar Big Ten rival, one they discarded two days prior in the second round. A 10-inning, 2-1 win for Maryland, initially highlighted by pitching contributions from Nick Dean and David Falco Jr., was saved by Nick Lorusso banging the first walk-off home run of his career at any level.
Savacool last started against the Huskers on May 7, when he relented seven hits and five earned runs over six innings in what escalated into a 20-5 victory for the Terps. His most recent action was on Thursday, when he emerged for his first relief appearance of the season to toss 20 pitches in the pivotal 10th inning.
He came out strong with back-to-back 1-2-3 frames to stifle the Huskers early, forcing the same weak contact seen on Thursday to keep Nebraska scoreless in extra innings.
“The four-seam today was really huge for me,” Savacool said. “I’m primarily a two-seam guy, but made a couple changes to my repertoire over the past couple weeks, and on top of that got the bigger ballpark, which helps out a little bit. All around, probably the best that I’ve pitched here in three years in terms of my stuff today.
On Saturday, the Terps squandered a pair of walks in the first inning but took a 3-0 lead in the second powered by five straight hits. Eddie Hacopian smacked a leadoff double before the depth of the lineup busied up the basepaths (including two bunt singles) and Kevin Keister brought in two more with a rope through the left side of the infield.
“We’ve been preaching that from day one, you have to be able to score in different ways,” Vaughn said.
Hacopian struck again in the top of the fifth, sending the first homer of the game high over the left fielder’s glove to extend the score to 4-0. The Terps’ offense soon screeched to a halt as the team hit into five straight groundouts before Orr reached first on an error.
Savacool exited the game prior to the start of the seventh inning, finishing his outing with less than 100 pitches. He handed the ball to Kenny Lippman, who did not allow a hit over two innings pitched while collecting three strikeouts.
Ninth inning pitching scares nearly spiraled into a full-fledged meltdown, starting with Belgrave entering for Lippman and promptly allowing three straight walks. He was removed in favor of the left-handed Johnson, who surrendered an RBI single for Nebraska’s first run of the afternoon. After falling behind 3-0 to the following hitter, he rebounded with a strikeout and two straight flyouts (including a sac fly) to end the game.
“That’s a guy who early in the season was struggling a little bit, and then he really went to work,” Savacool said of Johnson. “He’s really worked his butt off, as have a lot of our guys, to continue to refine themselves, and I think you’re seeing the culmination of that this weekend.”
Maryland will play for its first-ever Big Ten baseball championship against Iowa tomorrow at 3 p.m. back at Charles Schwab Field.