Baseball: Outfielder improves bat in second year
For Rutgers head baseball coach Fred Hill, the responsibility of the five-hole hitter involves making contact more than any other offensive statistic.
“He doesn’t have to hit homeruns, but he has to put the ball in play,” Hill said of that spot in the lineup.
So, barring an offensive letdown from the top four spots, the five hole usually provides several opportunities not just to drive runners in, but see pitches that are easier to hit.
Sophomore leftfielder Vinny Zarrillo has taken advantage of the later thus far this season, leading the Scarlet Knights with a .364 average in their first nine games.
His plate production is a far cry from the numbers he put up in his first season with the team.
Zarrillo batted .226 during his rookie campaign, the lowest average from a player with 40 or more appearances.
He credits his commitment to the weight room as well as the batting cage during the offseason for his improvement, but a mental burden has allowed for the biggest difference in the way the Forked River, N.J., native has approached the plate.
He made 26 starts in the 40 appearances as he was put in and out of Hill’s starting lineup. For Zarrillo, that meant making the most out of the limited opportunities he was handed.
So the added pressure to produce in those limited at bats is understandable. But he does not have to worry about that anymore.
“It keeps you more relaxed,” Zarrillo said. “If you cloud your mind with thoughts saying ‘I have to get a hit here, I have to get a hit there,’ it definitely puts more pressure on you and makes things harder than it has to be.”
Hill believes his improvement extends from at the plate as well.
Zarrillo replaced Joe D’Annunzio in left field, after D’Annunzio led the team with a .991 fielding percentage — the highest on the team last season among everyday players.
Zarrillo holds a .938 percentage in left field this season. But his bat has been his most obvious improvement.
“He’s definitely a lot more patient at the plate,” said junior shortstop Pat Sweeney. “He is getting a lot more better pitches to hit, and he’s not really chasing anything out of the zone. He’s just worked on his swing in the offseason, and you’re just getting a lot of line drives out of him instead of fly balls.”
Rutgers needs production in the middle of the lineup, especially with its most recent offensive struggles.
The Knights’ three through five hitters went a combined 8-for-31 against the Yellow Jackets as the offense produced only three runs in the three game series.
But Hill believes the offense will turn around, and it is a safe bet Zarrillo will have a lot to do with it this season as long as he continues his production.
“He’s making more contact than he was last year,” Hill said. “He’s in a position now to drive in a couple runs too, and he’s been able to do that. We just hope he can continue to do that and continue to put the ball in play, and that’s the big thing.”
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