Maryland baseball coach Rob Vaughn jogged to the mound to speak with right-hander Taylor Bloom in the sixth inning of Sunday's contest against Nebraska. It was an unusual circumstance, as Vaughn typically appears on the field only to make a pitching change. But with two Cornhuskers in scoring position, the first-year coach wanted to discuss Bloom's approach.
At one point in the inning, Bloom had momentarily lost control, tossing nine straight balls. Left-hander Grant Burleson, who Vaughn felt matched up well with the next Nebraska hitter, was warmed up in the bullpen. Still, Vaughn let Bloom — his senior ace who has been sidetracked through injury and inconsistency — decide whether he wanted to remain in the game.
"Dude, you've had the ball for the biggest games in the history of this school," Vaughn told Bloom when he reached the mound. "If you tell me you're good, you've got the baseball."
Bloom assured his coach he could get the job done, and his first-pitch changeup forced Cornhuskers right fielder Ben Klenke to fly out to center field, ending the threat and keeping it a four-run game.
In his first start back from a concussion he suffered April 13, Bloom overcame middle-inning trouble to supply seven frames in the 5-2 loss. His performance allowed the Terps to remain close in a crucial Big Ten matchup despite a quiet lineup.
"It was just a typical Taylor Bloom start for us," catcher Justin Morris said. "He gave us a chance to win the game. He made good pitches. Like I said, some unfortunate things happened offensively, and we just weren't able to score more runs."
The Cornhuskers attracted more than 5,000 fans for each contest. Their presence was felt in Sunday's rubber match, a contest critical for Maryland's conference tournament hopes with Bloom starting for the first time in a month.
But the big-game atmosphere didn't disturb Bloom, who began the season as the Terps' Friday starter. He has experience in that type of environment.
As a freshman, Bloom pitched in the Big Ten tournament final and beat No. 1 overall seed UCLA in the Los Angeles regional of the NCAA tournament. The next year, he posted a 2.46 ERA and walked just nine batters in 102 innings, making him a mainstay in the Terps' rotation.
"It's a senior who wants the baseball," Vaughn said. "Every time that guy goes out, I feel good about it. He competes his tail off and every single game he gives you a chance to win."
Despite his 2-7 record and 5.32 ERA this season, Bloom has shown signs of the dominance he's displayed in the past. But at times Sunday, it became evident he had missed his past three regularly scheduled starts.
After Bloom retired the first 10 batters he faced, Cornhuskers first baseman Scott Schreiber capitalized on a mistake pitch with a solo home run in the fourth. Bloom allowed three runs to score in the fifth.
"He kept staying the course," Morris said. "When you're throwing a lot of strikes, every now and then they're going to put decent swings on it."
Bloom overcame a brief setback prior to his start against the Cornhuskers. He appeared in a two-inning relief stint April 29 to steadily increase his pitch count, but he said his delivery felt off in the game's middle innings. With a fastball usually in the mid-80s, Bloom relies on weak contact, not swings-and-misses, through command of the strike zone.
So it was worrisome in the sixth inning, when a four-pitch walk and a double put runners on second and third with two down. But Vaughn decided to check on Bloom, and the pair's conversation helped calm Bloom before he induced an inning-ending flyout.
"He told me I've been doing it for a long time and to just keep making pitches, keep battling," Bloom said. "That gave me a lot of confidence."
Bloom used that boost to remain in the game for one final inning, which he punctuated with a strikeout of third baseman Luke Roskam.
In his first start since being sidelined, Bloom threw 103 pitches, striving to position the Terps for a critical conference victory during a late push toward Big Ten tournament contention. Though Maryland was unable to secure a win Sunday, Bloom's outing gave them a chance to do so.
"Knowing that I just had a couple starts left this year, I was just going to leave it all out there. My pitch count wasn't a factor in my mind at this point," Bloom said. "We just have two weekends left. For a lot of us seniors, it's going to be the last two weekends that we ever get to play baseball."