After the Maryland baseball team's 8-6 win against Rutgers on Sunday, coach Rob Vaughn's wife told her husband she felt it was a game the Terps would have lost six weeks ago. Vaughn agreed, having watched the Terps secure their first series sweep against a Big Ten opponent this season, overcoming a ninth-inning error that jeopardized Maryland's lead.
Maryland's miscues have often proven to be costly, part of the reason they're three games under .500 and competing for a spot in the conference tournament in the final weekend of the regular season.
Vaughn said Maryland's annual goal is to win the regular season conference title, but that's unattainable. So, the Terps' must focus on winning the Big Ten tournament. Despite the team's inconsistencies, Maryland controls its own destiny against Indiana this weekend, with a successful weekend likely resulting in a tournament spot. Maryland hasn't missed the Big Ten tournament since joining the conference in 2014.
"This feels like how it's supposed to be," left fielder Marty Costes said. "To even get a chance to be in this tournament is a blessing for how things have been so far."
Though the Terps are positioned for a tournament spot, their postseason chances seemed uncertain as a result of late-season struggles. A series loss against Nebraska dropped Maryland to 11th in the standings before the sweep against Rutgers vaulted Vaughn's squad to a tie for eighth place, the final spot for qualification. The Terps boast the tiebreaker over Michigan State as a result of a series win earlier this year.
Vaughn credited clean baseball in their final weekend at home as a reason for the Terps' turnaround, as double plays and errors plagued Maryland in Lincoln, Nebraska. Then, on Sunday against the Scarlet Knights, errors in the eighth and ninth led to three unearned runs, helping Rutgers chip away at the Terps' once large lead. Still, Maryland avoided a late collapse that would've increased the difficulty of a attaining a Big Ten tournament berth.
After Tuesday's practice, Vaughn preached the necessity to minimize extended innings after errors or walks put runners on base.
"To win the Big Ten tournament, you've gotta get into the Big Ten tournament," Vaughn said. "Of course, you're hoping that you're in there three weeks ago and you've got your spot locked up and you're contending to be a top three or four seed and starting to prepare yourself for the NCAA postseason, but that's kind of the way this season's gone."
In essence, Maryland needs to at least match what Michigan State does to maintain contention, though Nebraska and Rutgers are not mathematically eliminated from qualification. Despite playing later than the Spartans on Thursday and Friday, the Terps aren't planning on doing any scoreboard watching.
"If we do that, we're going to put ourselves in a place where you're spending mental calories on stuff you can't control," Vaughn said. "At that point, I think you're just setting yourself up for failure."
When Vaughn was named head coach in College Park, he wanted to continue former coach John Szefc's revisions to the program. The Terps have reached an NCAA Regional in three of the last four campaigns.
So while Maryland didn't finish near the top of the Big Ten as it was projected to, a late push toward conference tournament contention, set to be decided in its final Big Ten series, can keep hopes alive for further postseason play.
"We've wanted to be here since day one," catcher Justin Vought said. "That's almost expected here."