After a game that featured 19 total runs, a bunch of mistakes, and heroic moments alike from both sides, the winner-take-all finale of the College Park regional came down to the wire.
In the end, senior Justin Willis, UConn baseball’s self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie closer, retired the final six batters for No. 15 Maryland to hold on for an 11-8 win and send Jim Penders’ squad to its first super regional since 2011.
“He’s an animal of a competitor and he has no fear,” head coach Jim Penders said of his closer. “He has a steely nerve.”
Willis wasn’t the only UConn pitcher pushed to his limit — after throwing 109 pitches on Friday against Wake Forest, Austin Peterson entered in the fifth and delivered 28 more, digging out 2 1⁄3 innings and keeping the damage to a minimum.
“He’s an absolute competitor and a warrior, and without him, we’re not here,” catcher Matt Donlan said of Peterson after the game.
UConn’s batters delivered 11 runs on nine hits, drawing seven walks and showing lots of patience on the basepaths. They provided just enough offense to withstand a late-inning surge from a dangerous Maryland lineup, while the Huskies’ pitching staff manufactured outs in clutch situations to hold the Terps at bay.
Ian Cooke delivered a solid performance as the Huskies’ starting pitcher, throwing 4 2⁄3 innings with 2 earned runs, one of them a solo home run to lead off the game.
The Husky offense started out by building a wide margin right off the bat. After two quick outs, Maryland starter Andrew Johnson, who secured the win on Sunday night, lost touch with the strike zone and issued four straight walks to tie the game. The Terps went to the bullpen and immediately hit a batter to give UConn the lead and load the bases for Donlan. The catcher skied a hanging slider to center field for a grand slam to put his team up 6-1.
UConn continued to tack on in the third with an RBI double from T.C. Simmons, a solo homer from David Smith, and an RBI double from Bryan Padilla in the fourth, each blow taking them further and further out of reach for the Terrapins — and they would need every run of their 9-1 lead.
After cruising for the first four innings, UConn ran into some trouble in the fifth due to some shaky defense. A fly ball dropped between three defenders to start off the inning and Maryland eight hitter Bobby Zmarzlak motored his way to second. Kevin Keister and Luke Shliger, who had both been a thorn in the Huskies’ side over the weekend, hit back-to-back RBI singles and a dropped pop-up in right field made the score 9-5.
The Huskies responded with an RBI single from Zach Bushling in the next frame, but the Terps continued to creep back. Shliger and Chris Alleyne started off the seventh with a double and a two-run home run, then Zmarzlak and Keister followed up with a single and an RBI double in the eighth to make it 10-8.
Padilla, one of the breakout players of the regional, went 3-for-4 with two runs and a walk including the RBI single in the eighth to give UConn a three-run lead in the eighth, putting together great at-bat after great at-bat to strain and already-taught Terrapins pitching staff.
Padilla’s insurance run set up by an Erik Stock double and Willis’ six-out save shut down the formidable Maryland offense once and for all, and Gatorade poured over Penders for the third time this year as UConn punched its ticket to the super regionals.
The Huskies will face the winner of Texas State and Stanford in the regional final occurring on Monday night in a best-of-three Super Regional for the right to head to the College World Series.