Pair of hitters excel in new lineup spots
The Rutgers baseball team won by its largest margin of last season in a 17-2 victory April 16, 2011, against Cincinnati.
Junior catcher Jeff Melillo sat on the bench. Junior third baseman Pat Kivlehan was not on the team.
Melillo usually batted late in the order when he played last year, and Kivlehan still served as a defensive back for the Rutgers football team.
Both have now combined to create one of the best 3-4 hitting tandems in the Big East.
“We drive in runs, and that’s doing our job,” Melillo said.
Kivlehan and Melillo have 32 and 25 RBI, respectively, so far this season. Former third baseman D.J. Anderson led all Scarlet Knights last year with 25.
The Rutgers offense centers around Kivlehan and Melillo, and it has improved significantly.
The Knights scored 235 runs last year, which placed them 10th out of 12 Big East teams. They have already surpassed that total with 268, fourth in the conference.
“Early in the season, we struggled with that,” said assistant coach Tim Reilly. “We swung at a lot of balls in the dirt, a lot of off-speed stuff down. But we’ve improved, and we’ve really narrowed it down and hit strikes.”
Double-digit scoring outputs like that against the Bearcats were infrequent in 2011 — Rutgers did it only four times. The Knights bats were not as hot in the other two games in that series, which were both losses.
Rutgers (23-17, 8-7) travels to Cincinnati (13-29, 2-13) today with a lineup that has scored in double digits in nine games already and has a better chance at Big East Championship contention.
Much of that has to do with the addition of Kivlehan and the improvement of Melillo.
In his rookie season, Kivlehan has already made a solid case for Big East Player of the Year by leading the league with a .400 batting average, a .487 on-base percentage and .677 slugging percentage.
Kivlehan has made it through his first month of Big East play, but most pitchers still do not have an answer for him.
“I think [pitchers] figured him out,” Reilly said. “I think sometimes they’ll make a mistake and he’ll hit it, and he can hit pitches that aren’t mistakes.”
Major League Baseball scouts have been to Rutgers games, and Kivlehan knows they are watching him. But the West Nyack, N.Y., native has the same focus as the rest of the Knights.
“There’s a time and a place to think about that,” Kivlehan said. “We’re in the middle of a Big East race, so we have to worry about that stuff.”
Melillo often gives Kivlehan someone to bat in with his .451 OBP, which is eighth in the conference and eclipses his .248 OBP from last season.
The North Hunterdon High School (N.J.) product also hits for power with a .474 slugging percentage that doubles last year’s percentage of .235.
“Plate discipline, swinging at certain pitches, choosing counts to swing at, when to swing, when not to swing,” Melillo said on how he has progressed. “I think I’m a lot less aggressive early on this year than I was last year.”
Rutgers faces a tough Cincinnati rotation in junior righthander Zach Isler, freshman lefthander Zach Morris and sophomore righthander Christian McElroy. All sport ERAs of four or less, and none started in last year’s series against the Knights.
But the rotation is equally unfamiliar with the 3-4 combination of Melillo and Kivlehan.