(Photo by Ben Solomon/Rutgers Athletics)

Rutgers baseball sweeps series against Minnesota

PISCATAWAY, NJ- No matter the opponent, conference games need much preparation.

After starting their six-game homestand with non-conference wins, the red-hot Rutgers Scarlet Knights baseball team was ready for their first home series against a Big Ten opponent.

The Minnesota Golden Gophers are a more talented team than their record shows. They struggled mightily at 5-15 before building important momentum with a three-game sweep against Western Illinois. The Golden Gophers also had one of the best hitters in the Big Ten in Jack Kelly and a dangerous power hitter in Chase Stanke in their lineup, and on the mound, they had a dependable ace in Sam Ireland. Unfortunately, the rest of their lineup and rotation was largely inconsistent, resulting in their poor record.

Even with these inconsistencies, the Scarlet Knights are more than aware that conference games are difficult. In their first conference series of the year at Penn State, Rutgers ended up splitting a doubleheader: they erased a 4-1 deficit in the first game but blew a 4-0 first-inning lead in the second game.

Ultimately, the Scarlet Knights went the extra mile and secured a three-game sweep over the Golden Gophers. After a hard-fought victory in the opener, Rutgers took both games of a doubleheader in dominating fashion.

April 1: The Series Opener

In the opening game, both teams sent their aces to the hill; Sam Ireland started for Minnesota, while Jared Kollar toed the slab for Rutgers. Notably, both pitchers had not lost any of their previous starts: Ireland stood at 3-0, while Kollar was 4-0.

Despite the strong pitching matchup, the Scarlet Knights lineup flexed its muscle in the first two innings. With one out in the bottom of the first shortstop Danny DiGeorgio singled and moved to second on a wild pitch. Ireland got the second out, but designated hitter Evan Sleight retaliated with an RBI single to put Rutgers in front. Third baseman Tony Santa Maria then hit a bloop double into right field. The ball landed between right fielder Otto Grimm and second baseman Boston Merila, and Sleight scored all the way from first.

Josh Kuroda-Grauer blasted a solo shot in the bottom of the second, but Ireland buckled down afterward, and the expected pitcher's duel began to materialize. The score remained 3-0 through five innings as Kollar had allowed only three hits while striking out nine, while Ireland finished his start allowing the three runs on six hits, with seven punchouts.

Weather played a significant role in the game. Strong winds blew throughout the day as the sixth inning would be delayed for over 20 minutes due to rain.

The rain delay either allowed the Golden Gophers to regroup and resulted in Kollar cooling off. Regardless, Minnesota made it a one-run game. Catcher Chase Stanke drew a one-out walk and third baseman Jack Kelly, the Golden Gophers' most feared hitter, hit a two-run home run. Kollar's day was done after recording the final out of the inning. He finished with a quality start with a season-best ten strikeouts.

Rutgers got those two runs back right away against Minnesota's bullpen. Seth Clausen faced only two batters, issuing walks to Santa Maria and first baseman Chris Brito. Tom Skoro entered and recorded the first out but then gave up consecutive RBI singles to Kuroda-Grauer and left fielder Mike Nyisztor before being pulled himself.

Richie Holetz put out the fire without any further damage but allowed one last run for Rutgers in the seventh inning. Catcher Nick Cimillo drew a leadoff walk, moved to second on a groundout, and scored on a two-out RBI single by Brito.

Sam Bello, who had pitched a scoreless seventh, returned to the mound to pitch the eighth. An error by Kuroda-Grauer on center fielder Brett Bateman's ground ball gave the Golden Gophers new life. After Bello got the next two outs, Kelly and Grimm hit back-to-back RBI doubles to make it a 6-4 game with both runs unearned. With the tying run now at the plate, manager Steve Owens handed the ball to closer Dale Stanavich, who now had a save opportunity in a Rutgers home game for the first time all season. "Dirty Dale" quickly got Merila to pop out to end the threat and pitched a perfect ninth inning to nail down the series-opening win.

Kollar improved to an impressive 5-0 on the year, while Ireland suffered his first loss all season. Stanavich picked up his sixth save. With a pair of RBIs and a home run, Kuroda-Grauer was the Scarlet Knights' primary catalyst on offense.

April 2: The Doubleheader

The series was originally going to be played over three days, but inclement weather expected for Sunday necessitated a Saturday doubleheader. The Scarlet Knights' lineup proved up to the task of 18 innings, as they relentlessly mashed the ball to combine for 20 runs on the day in a doubleheader sweep.

In the second inning, Rutgers opened the scoring against J.P. Massey. Brito hit a one-out single, advanced to second on a groundout, and scored on Kuroda-Grauer's third RBI of the series. Santa Maria walked with one out in the next inning, advanced to second on a wild pitch, moved to third on a groundout, and scored on Sleight's RBI single (Sleight played left field in this game; Garrett Callaghan was the DH).

The Scarlet Knights blasted the game open in the fourth. Brito drew a leadoff walk and moved to second on Callaghan's single before being forced out at third on Kuroda-Grauer's fielder's choice. Nyisztor drove in Callaghan with an RBI single before Massey was sent to the showers with the bases loaded. Josh Culliver came in to put out the fire but instead gave up consecutive two-run doubles to Santa Maria and Cimillo before being replaced by Tucker Novotny. Sleight then reached on a fielding error before DiGeorgio's single re-loaded the bases. Brito's fielder's choice forced out DiGeorgio but advanced Sleight to third and drove in Cimillo, the run unearned.

With Callaghan up, Brito made an incredible baserunning play. Attempting to steal second base, he got himself trapped in an intentional rundown so Sleight could steal home (this run was unearned). However, Brito still avoided the tag for a successful double steal. Sleight's theft of home would cap off Rutgers' seven-run rally in the fourth.

Two more runs scored in the fifth. Nyisztor hit a leadoff double, moved to third on a flyout in foul territory, and scored on Santa Maria's sacrifice fly. Cimillo then followed with a no-doubt home run that stayed fair inside the left-field foul pole to finish the scoring for Rutgers.

On the mound, Nathan Florence was brilliant for the Scarlet Knights. He pitched five shutout innings before allowing a run in the sixth. Florence picked up the win and a quality start, allowing only four hits and striking out four.

Garrett French pitched the last three innings and allowed a meaningless solo shot in the eighth, but nothing more. French earned his second save of the year (the first being his Houdini escape against Rider).

"We got a good start. We got a really good offensive performance and then we got a great relief appearance from French, which gave us length," Owens said.

The length from his pitchers allowed Owens to use an opener for the second game. Just like the NJIT game, Justin Sinibaldi got the start.

Rutgers would strike for a run in the bottom of the first. Center fielder Ryan Lasko drew a leadoff walk, moved to second on a groundout, advanced to third on a single and scored on a wild pitch from starter Aidan Maldonado.

Minnesota took their only lead of the series in the third on a two-run home run by left fielder Andrew Wilhite, but the Scarlet Knights once again assumed command in the fourth inning. Kuroda-Grauer started the rally with a ground-rule double before moving to third on a sacrifice bunt. First baseman Jordan Sweeney drew a walk, with ball four being a wild pitch that allowed Kuroda-Grauer to score and tie the game. A single and a walk would load the bases, bringing up DiGeorgio with two outs. On the ninth pitch of the at-bat and a full count, DiGeorgio hit a high chopper that was kept in the infield by third baseman Jake Larson, but the effort was in vain. Sweeney easily scored the go-ahead run due to the runners being in motion, but Lasko never stopped running and beat the throw home to score as well.

Now ahead 4-2, Rutgers aimed to put the game out of reach. Cimillo hit another infield single to re-load the bases, bringing Brito (the game's DH) to the plate. Brito hit a fly ball to left that appeared to be harmless; however, Wilhite and shortstop Drew Stahl miscommunicated and collided with each other, allowing the ball to drop. What could have been the third out instead was a bases-clearing bloop double, Rutgers now led 7-2, and the rout was on again.

The Scarlet Knights added two more insurance runs on the way to a 9-2 victory. Ben Gorski, who relieved Sinibaldi in the fourth, picked up the win with four brilliant innings; he struck out five and allowed only one baserunner, retiring the first 11 batters he faced. Bello and Joe Mazza pitched one inning each to finish the game.

"Our guys fight in the batter's box," Owens said of the team's hitting approach. "We put walks on people. We wear pitches. We put 104 pitches on their starter in 3.2 innings."

What Does This Mean for Rutgers?

Coupled with the rubber match victory against Penn State, the Scarlet Knights are on a six-game winning streak. With five out of six wins in their homestand, Rutgers is also a perfect 6-0 at home.

Ultimately, Rutgers is off to a historically good start. After the three-game sweep of the Golden Gophers, the Scarlet Knights are 21-6, which is their best record ever through 27 games. Their 5-1 conference record is also their best start to conference play since moving to the Big Ten.

The team is firing on all cylinders with relentless hitting, lockdown pitching, and strong defense. Their efforts have resulted in the team now sitting comfortably in first place in the Big Ten Conference.

Next Up for Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights complete their homestand against the Monmouth Hawks. First pitch is at 3:00 PM at Bainton Field on Tuesday.