GM Joel Benjamin (2614) - GM Sergey Erenburg (2646) 0-1
IM Mackenzie Molner (2548) - IM Tegshsuren Enkhbat (2425) 0-1
IM Albert Kapengut (2372) - FM Ralph Zimmer (2279) 1-0
Sean Finn (2123) - NM Adithya Balasubramanian (2255) 0-1
Knowing that just one draw in the match would clinch a playoff berth creates a strange kind of tension. You know it is just so close, yet it is not guaranteed. Inevitably, you wonder "What if the incredible happens? What if we lose 0-4?" I knew that it's happened before - Carolina defeated Tennessee 4-0 (thanks to a win on time in a dead lost position) to edge Philadelphia on game points for the final playoff spot in 2006. Perhaps it was best that most of the players didn't know about that incident!
The match didn't start out very well for Baltimore. You just know it's not going good when your pieces are forced back to the starting rank as in the above position from Board 3. FM Zimmer played on, looking for any complications, but IM Kapengut allowed nothing and even trapped black's queen to seal the game.
The match looked even worse when Board 4 reached the above position. NM Balasubramanian was losing the exchange with 27. Qe3 Nxe1 28. Qxe1 (28. Bxf8?? Qg2#) Kxg7 and would have to fight hard to even draw.
Meanwhile, GM Benjamin was trying hard to drum up an attack on GM Erenburg's King as seen in the following position:
Perhaps 21...g5 was best, but it would have allowed white to expose the black king after 22. Nxh6+ Bxh6 23. Bxg5 (23... Bxg5 24. Qxg5+ Qg6 25. Rxe5 Nxe5 26. Qxe5 =/+). GM Erenburg chose to defend his king (and offer a queen-trade) with 21... Ng6. The game continued 22. Qg4 Qc6 23. Qe2 Rd5 24. Rf1 Nf6 25. Re3 Rad8 26. Qf3 Qd7 27. Bxh6 gxh6 28. Qf4?? Nxf4. With that dropped queen, Baltimore finally clinched the playoff spot and was then playing for a chance at the 3rd seed. Also, GM Erenburg had clinched at least 2nd in the MVP race. GM Becerra would take a draw Wednesday to win the UCSL MVP for the 3rd time.
IM Mackenzie Molner fought hard to keep the game complicated, culminating with 24... Nxf2 in the above position. However, IM Enkhbat calmly diffused those complications with 25. Qxf2 Ng4 26. Qf4 Qxf4 27. gxf4 Bxc3 28. Ra2 Ne3 29. Rd3 Nxg2 30. Kxg2 and came out with a nice plus in the advanced c-pawn. He used that advantage to convert into a winning king and pawn endgame that brought about a resignation on move 47.
After IM Enkhbat's game finished, we saw that Boston-New York was going to be drawn, so NM Balasubramanian needed to at least draw his game for Baltimore to take the 3rd seed from New York. The game had become about even (around move 50) despite white going down that exchange earlier. Then, black made a final inaccuracy with 52... Rd8? that would give white the advantage:
NM Balasubramanian played 53. d7! e3 (53... Rxd7 54. Qa8+ Kh7 55. Nf8+ Kg7 56. Nxd7 Qxd7 57. Qxe4 +/=) 54. fxe3 Rf8 55. Nxf8! Qxa2 56. d8=Q Qb1+ 57. Kf2 Qf5+ 58. Ke2 and Finn resigned seeing as there was no compelling reason to continue playing.
So Baltimore clinched the playoff spot and passed New York for the 3rd seed. That sets up a Baltimore-Boston match in the Quarterfinals with Boston having draw odds but Baltimore having color-choice.