Rutgers loses series with spotty ‘D’
Baseball players often make routine defensive plays look easy. But in the Rutgers baseball team’s final two games this weekend against St. John’s, the Scarlet Knights defense went from routine to unpredictable, even on an infield grounder.
The defensive regression culminated in the eighth inning Saturday against the Red Storm. Three of the six Knights errors on the day helped turn a tie into a seven-run deficit and eventually a 17-10 loss.
“That has to change,” said sophomore shortstop Pat Sweeney on the defense. “We put ourselves in the position to win, but then we just didn’t play well defensively. That hurt us.”
Even though Sweeney plays the most error-prone position, he ended the game unscathed. But outside of the inning when the Knights allowed seven earned runs with three different pitchers, the Knights defense made other mistakes.
Rutgers fielders twice mishandled calling for a catch in foul territory. The defensive miscommunication prevented two possible outs as balls bounced between the defenders.
The Johnnies frequently tested the Knights fielding with 19 hits, but Rutgers did the same to St. John’s with 15.
It was not a matter of how far the Knights hit it, but where they hit it. Sweeney and sophomore centerfielder Brian O’Grady do not provide much power from the nine and leadoff spots, respectively, but aggressive hitting allowed for their combined five RBI.
“That’s one of the things that [assistant] coach [Joe Litterio] and I have been working on: being more aggressive early on in the count,” Sweeney said. “Early on in the year, I was getting behind in the count.”
The patient Rutgers lineup leads the Big East with 137 walks. But in the Knights’ losses to Columbia on Wednesday and St. John’s on Thursday, they wanted to better capitalize off their opportunities.
“Timely hitting is the most important part of the offense,” said junior rightfielder Steve Zavala. “You can go [barely any] hits the whole day, but if you can hit at the right time, that’s big.”
Zavala is a patient hitter with a .386 on-base percentage, but the Knights needed someone to hit runners in from the five spot.
That is what he did in the St. John’s series, when he hit 5-for-11 with four RBI and one walk.
Zavala’s most productive output occurred in Friday’s 6-2 victory against St. John’s, when his seventh-inning single brought in three runs in his 2-for-4 outing.
“I think I’m just getting better pitches to hit,” Zavala said. “I have a little protection in the lineup, and the bats seem to be getting hot. I don’t know [if I have] a power stroke, but it’s coming along.”
Like the five Knights pitchers Friday, junior righthander Rob Smorol forced the defense to play to contact. Smorol is second on the Knights (15-15, 4-5) with 28 strikeouts, but none were against St. John’s.
The main difference between Smorol’s two-run start and the 17 Johnnies (18-13, 6-3) runs the next game was the Knights defense, propelling Smorol (4-2) to victory.
“Early in the game, we were kind of sloppy with [two] errors, but we cleaned that up,” said head coach Fred Hill. “[Smorol] did a great job. He was a little erratic early, settled down a little bit, got a little tired toward the seventh and handled the eighth pretty good.”
With a combined 24 hits in the two games, the Knights had no problem setting themselves up for victory. But they need to defend that victory in the field.