At the Maryland baseball team's practice Tuesday, coach Rob Vaughn hit balls around the field as he called out different situations for the fielders to respond to. One time, he said there was a man on first with one out, setting up a clear double play opportunity. The next, he hinted at a sacrifice bunt.
When right-hander Elliot Zoellner bounced off the mound, fielded the bunt and threw to first, the team cheered. Spirits were high as a string of clean plays were completed from a defense that has struggled at points this campaign.
At this stage in the season, the Terps, currently seven games under .500, must focus on their final two Big Ten series for a chance at postseason baseball.
First, however, the Terps play Towson on Wednesday, in their final midweek test of the regular season. And while the game has no bearing on conference standings as the Terps hope for a late push toward Big Ten tournament contention, a matchup with an in-state rival they haven't lost to since 2010 is not one they plan on lying down for.
"There's a lot of motivation on their end to beat the University of Maryland, and on our end, you don't want to lose to people in-state," Vaughn said. "You want to keep doing a good job in your state. That helps in recruiting, that helps in everything. So we know they're going to come out with a lot of energy and a really, really good mindset, and we've got to match them and play well tomorrow."
In last week's contest against West Virginia, Maryland made three errors in the first inning, helping the Mountaineers jump out to a four-run lead. The Terps couldn't complete the comeback, falling 9-5.
West Virginia bunted four times in the first two frames, capitalizing on chances to move runners. Starter Billy Phillips fumbled a bunt attempt in the first inning, allowing a potential sacrifice to reach base.
But on Tuesday, Phillips cleanly fielded a similar ball tossed by Vaughn down the first-base line, despite having a tricky throw to make as a left-hander.
"There's been a lot of games this year where we've maybe missed some plays to get some outs that might've minimized some innings," right-hander Mark DiLuia said. "So, that's just definitely been a focus, just try to make the game go by smoother and quicker."
Sitting in 11th place in the Big Ten and two games back of qualification for the eight-team conference tournament, Maryland's weekend results are crucial. Strong showings against Rutgers and Indiana in the final two series could help the Terps sneak into tournament qualification — and extend a season originally expected to result with a high conference finish.
With Maryland already out of at-large contention, a nonconference win against Towson won't factor toward a postseason bid. Still, a clean game can offer confidence prior to a must-win series against the Scarlet Knights.
"Tomorrow's the first step. We've got a big weekend against Rutgers," right-hander Hunter Parsons said. "Winning tomorrow against Towson, an in-state team, [can] give us a little bit of momentum going into this weekend."