Rutgers extends hot stretch, momentum
Coming into the game against Rider yesterday at Bainton Field, the Rutgers baseball team had a chance to go above a .500 winning percentage for the season.
While it seems like an insignificant accomplishment in the grand scheme of a successful season, it is something the Scarlet Knights had not done since April 16, 2013, when they beat Lafayette, 14-8.
In a game that moved up to 2 p.m. due to an impending rainstorm later in the afternoon, Rutgers did not feel ill effects in its 6-4 victory against the Broncs (11-23, 4-6).
But things did not come easy for the Knights (19-18, 6-5) at any point.
With Rutgers up two runs in the bottom of the ninth, head coach Joe Litterio turned to junior closer Jon Young for an opportunity to convert his eighth save in as many chances.
Rider catcher Ken Kremer led off with a single and then outfielder Brian Donnelly worked the count full in the ensuing at bat.
After a lengthy at bat, with six balls being fouled off, Young kept working the ball down. Pitch 11 found fair territory and the trio of seniors Pat Sweeney, Nick Favatella and Brian O’Grady turned the 6-4-3 double play.
Young struck out the next batter looking but was relieved after the inning did not start according to plan.
“When you are going in for a save, the best thing you could do for yourself is get the first guy out, and what do you know, the guy gets a hit off of me. And of course the next guy has to foul off like 10 pitches,” Young said sarcastically. “I kept throwing strikes and keeping the ball low so that I could get a double play ball. Luckily enough it took a long time, but I got it.”
The Knights scored four runs in the bottom of the third inning as five runners reached base.
The inning was big for Rutgers, said junior catcher Michael Zavala. The Knights aimed to give redshirt freshman righthander Kevin Baxter as much run support as needed.
Baxter earned his second win of the season, allowing three runs on seven hits.
“It’s a team effort. Baxter picked us up and picked our defense up when we needed it,” Zavala said. “In that inning we just decided to pick him up. Everybody won today and we’re happy.”
Zavala was part of a big wrinkle in the lineup that saw six out of the nine batters in the lineup play positions they are not used to.
O’Grady started his first career game at third base, while Zavala — usually part of the two-man platoon at catcher — earned a break from fielding, earning the lineup spot at designated hitter.
While Zavala reached base twice and scored two runs, it was an uncomfortable transition.
“DH is a little different, but it’s still a fun position,” Zavalla said. “It’s a little harder mentally, I think. You are not in the game all nine innings playing defense, but it does give you time to talk to talk to [Director of Baseball Operations Glen Gardner] and think about your at bats.”
The changes in the lineup were in an effort to shake things up offensively going into a weekend series against the AAC’s No. 1 team, Central Florida.
“We were trying to get more of an offensive lineup after this weekend — I don’t think we swung it as well,” Litterio said. “Just trying to get some other guys in, and we are going to be facing a lot of left handers [this weekend]. [These two midweek games] give me a chance to play a couple different ways and a different lineup like today. We want to win every single game we play, and this gets some guys’ feet wet in case we need them.”
The midweek games yesterday against Rider and today against Wagner provide a swing of momentum for a Rutgers team that has rattled off eight wins out of the last 10 games — momentum that could benefit the Knights going up against the top team in the conference.
This streak of games leaves Young with high hopes going up against a top UCF team.
“Baseball is a game of momentum, and I think with all these wins coming all in a row, I think we are going to be in really good shape coming into this weekend’s conference series. It’s a big, big weekend,” Young said. “If we beat them two out of three, or three out of three times, we can come out first in the conference. That’s what we are hoping for and that’s what we are aiming for.”
For updates on the Rutgers baseball team, follow Tyler Karalewich on Twitter @TylerKaralewich. For general Rutgers sports updates, follow @TargumSports.