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(Photo by Ben Solomon/Rutgers Athletics)

Rutgers Baseball Running on Fumes Entering Conference Play

A 14-5 record in non-conference play is a great way to start a season.

But the Rutgers Scarlet Knights baseball team, while continuing to win, are seeing some of their early season momentum wear off.

With their first Big Ten opponent waiting for them in Happy Valley, the Scarlet Knights are finally showing a bit of wear-and-tear. When looking at their schedule, fatigue was inevitable.

Their upcoming road series against the Penn State Nittany Lions will complete a stretch of 21 road games to start the season. Rutgers' only home game in their first 22 games was sandwiched between a 10-game road trip and a 11-game road trip.

When taking that into account, the Scarlet Knights' hot start is legitimately impressive. They sit in a comfortable third place in the Big Ten, and aren't far off from the top two teams. First-place Purdue and second-place Maryland are 16-1 and 16-3, respectively. Neither of them have dealt with a pair of extensive road trips like Rutgers has. Entering Big Ten play, the Scarlet Knights lead the conference in batting average and are second in ERA.

But with this many road games in a single stretch, momentum wasn't going to last forever. After regularly scoring seven runs or more in their games, including in some losses, the bats have finally cooled down.

March 18-20: vs Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks

After splitting a four-game series in Honolulu, the Scarlet Knights marched to the midwest to take on the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks in a three-game series. The Mavericks seemed like an easy opponent, as they were only 5-11 entering the series. But for these three games, it was anything but.

The series opener was an intense pitcher's duel. Rutgers starting pitcher Jared Kollar twirled a gem, tossing 7.1 innings with only two hits and no runs, while striking out 10. Unfortunately, he wouldn't get any run support and earned a no-decision.

The Scarlet Knights outhit the Mavericks 6-3, but left 10 men on base while being shut out. They had an amazing chance to score in the second inning when Tony Santa Maria led off with a triple. But a groundout by Evan Sleight was unable to drive him in, and Josh Kuroda-Grauer struck out. Needing a base hit to drive in the run, Rutgers failed to deliver; Garrett Callaghan walked, and Mike Nyisztor flew out to end the inning.

Nebraska-Omaha's Caleb Riedel threw five scoreless innings, while Joey Machado threw four scoreless frames to earn the win. Rutgers closer Dale Stanavich, pitching in a non-save situation, was the hard-luck loser despite giving up only one hit, which was a walk-off single to Noah Greise. The Scarlet Knights had dominated the Mavericks on the stat sheet- with 14 strikeouts on the mound as opposed to four- but the Mavericks got the hit that mattered most.

After the frustrating defeat, the Scarlet Knights scored right away in the next game. Mavericks starter Charlie Bell retired the first two batters, but then walked Danny DiGeorgio, who scored all the way from first base on a Nick Cimillo double down the left field line.

Bell wouldn't allow any more runs through five innings, but Rutgers starter Brian Fitzpatrick gave his team another excellent pitching performance, tossing five shutout innings with six strikeouts, no walks, and only two hits.

Rutgers blew the game open in the next two innings against Nebraska-Omaha's bullpen. Jarrett Blunt relieved Bell in the sixth inning and got the first two outs, but Sleight then homered to make it 2-0 Rutgers. Kuroda-Grauer then singled on a dribbler to Blunt, and Callaghan followed with a two-run home run, his first of the season, extending the lead to 4-0.

Blunt was replaced by Tanner Howe in the seventh inning, but the Scarlet Knights pushed their lead even further against him. Richie Schiekofer greeted the new pitcher with a double, and he came around to score on a single by DiGeorgio. DiGeorgio was caught stealing during Cimillo's at-bat, which ended in a groundout for the second out, but Ryan Lasko singled and Santa Maria hit a two-run home run to make it 7-0.

With a comfortable lead, Fitzpatrick handed the ball over to the bullpen after the first of Rutgers' three-run rallies. They would continue to stymie the Mavericks, only allowing a meaningless run in the bottom of the ninth to close out a 7-1 win.

In the series finale, the Scarlet Knights scored in the first inning again. Schiekofer and Lasko hit back-to-back doubles to start the game; Lasko would be picked off, but Cimillo homered to make it 2-0. Unfortunately, the bats were silent for the rest of the game, as Mavericks starter Mark Timmins pitched eight innings.

Drew Reetz got a run back for Nebraska-Omaha with a home run in the bottom of the first, and Garrett Kennedy beat out what could have been a double-play ground ball to drive in a run and tie the game in the fourth. Rutgers starter Nathan Florence turned it over to the bullpen the rest of the way, and neither team gave an inch as the game went to extra innings.

Sadly, Rutgers would be walked off again in the 12th inning. Matt Rowe allowed a leadoff walk, and was subsequently replaced by Sam Portnoy. He quickly got a fielder's choice out at second base, but then gave up a double to Mike Boeve into the left-center field gap, driving in Reetz all the way from first to end the game. This was the first series loss of the year for Rutgers.

The Scarlet Knights had largely outplayed the Mavericks in the series, tallying more runs and hits at the plate, and more strikeouts on the mound. But Nebraska-Omaha came through in clutch situations to steal the series, as they attempt to turn their own season around. As for Rutgers, they needed to shake off the disappointing losses quickly; only one game remained before conference play began.

March 22: at Rider Broncs

Before heading to Happy Valley, the Scarlet Knights earned a much needed trip back to New Jersey. But there was no time to rest; they were tasked with taking down an in-state rival, the Rider Broncs, in Lawrenceville.

Rutgers drew first blood in the top of the second against Rider starter Vincent Vitacco. Sleight led off with a single, but was able to advance to second on an error. After moving to third on a Chris Brito single, Nyisztor drove him in with an RBI groundout.

However, starter Wyatt Parliament struggled with his command, lasting only 1.2 innings. Although he allowed only one hit and no runs, he walked five batters and was removed after the last of those walks loaded the bases with two outs. Kyle Muller, however, extinguished the fire before it could even start; he induced a flyout to center to escape the jam.

Rutgers made it 2-0 in the fifth when Lasko hit a leadoff triple and scored on DiGeorgio's sacrifice fly, and scored again in the sixth when Sleight doubled and scored on a sacrifice bunt by Nyisztor. But Rider scored an unearned run in the bottom of the sixth, when Alex Diamantis hit a sacrifice fly off Jayson Hoopes; they made it a one-run game when Socrates Bardatsos hit an RBI single off Hoopes.

The Scarlet Knights got those runs back in the eighth inning, both of them unearned. After loading the bases on a double, error, and hit-by-pitch, Nyisztor hit another fielder's choice, but everyone was safe and Santa Maria scored due to Bardatsos dropping the throw to the plate. Lasko then drove in another unearned run with a sacrifice fly.

Muller, Justin Sinibaldi, Hoopes, and Nate McLain held the fort after Parliament's exit. Deciding to rest Stanavich, coach Steve Owens gave the ball to Garrett French in a save situation. The Broncs, however, refused to go quietly and loaded the bases, bringing up the potential winning run. But French buckled down and got Luke Lesch to fly out to end the game.

With the heart-stopping save, Rutgers won 5-2 and possibly sparked some momentum for their first conference series.

What Does This Mean for Rutgers?

This wasn't a pretty week for the Scarlet Knights. Several great performances on the mound were negated by the offense finally falling into a slump; the two losses against Nebraska-Omaha could have been wins if the lineup was able to produce like they did in earlier games.

But after the pitching struggled in the Hawaii series, it was very encouraging to see the moundsmen return to form and keep the team in games throughout, even if their efforts didn't result in a win.

Ultimately, the start of conference play also means the end of the tunnel is in sight: the 21-road game stretch will finally end after the Penn State series, and the majority of the Scarlet Knights' games over the next two months will be in Piscataway.

Next Up for Rutgers

Conference play begins against the Penn State Nittany Lions in Happy Valley. First pitch is on Friday, March 25 at 6 PM.