Rutgers rides momentum into series with Penn State
It’s the most wonderful time of the year — or close to it.
The Rutgers softball team opens up conference play this season Friday as it is set to play Penn State in a three-game series.
The first game is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Friday, and the Knights (15-16) will then play at 1 p.m. on Saturday followed by a 12:00 matinee closing out the series on Sunday.
Not much was going in the right direction for the Knights earlier in the season.
A team with an ERA hovering over the five range as it struggled to put runs on the board, as well as move runners over, is now on the brink of reaching the .500 mark, with a shot to start a clean slate and place respectively in the Big Ten Conference.
Although Rutgers has improved mightily, one thing still sticks out to head coach Jay Nelson that the Knights need to work on — base running.
Nelson thinks the main thing holding back his players from making their own base running decisions is the lack of decision making in high school and travel ball growing up.
“I think it has to do with the way they were taught before they got here," he said. "Coming up through travel ball and high school, they’re all taught to listen to the coach and not react on their own. We gotta learn to read the ball better.”
Though the Knights rank No. 9 overall in runs scored among Big Ten teams, Nelson said that during the Spring Break Tournament at USF, they left runs on base in many situations.
Although Penn State (10-13) is not having the best season, it boasts eight hitters with a .300 batting average or better.
To go along with their dangerous lineup, the Nittany Lions have two pitchers in the two ERA range. Marlaina Laubach leads the team with a 2.65 ERA with over 60 and 2/3 innings pitched, and Christy Von Pusch comes right behind with a 2.81 ERA with 32 and 1/3 innings of work.
But having a lead-off hitter like Rutgers senior Stephanie Huang makes life a little bit easier for senior Jordan Whitley to drive her in.
“I think having Steph as a lead off hitter sets us up for a good start to the game,” Whitley said. “It doesn’t really affect my approach at the plate, I just want to get my pitches to hit hard, but its helpful there's a good chance to get some runners on base and we can score some runs.”
While only one game under .500 with 31 games in the books, the Knights knew it was only a matter of time before they really got things rolling.
“Once we started getting everything together — once we started gelling and putting the hits with the pitching, I think it was expected that this would start happening," said junior utility player Carly Todd. "I don’t think anyone was looking negatively at the season. We always had positive looks going forward and we knew if we kept putting work in, and extra work outside of practice, I think we could start to come together and start going on a more positive note.”
A key part of Rutgers' success is credited towards Melanie Slowinski’s impressive stat sheet.
The senior third baseman is batting a .330, second best on the team, with 17 runs, 33 hits, three doubles, 12 RBI’s and a solid on base percentage of .380.
But the main reason why the Knights are settling in this season is due to the pitching staff clicking together and finding their groove.
“I think the pitchers are settling in,” Whitley said. “They're getting a lot more comfortable with themselves and with each other, and they're able to battle out of some tough situations. So I think that’s just gonna help us moving forward.”
The main thing that Rutgers has stressed is conference play.
The way the Knights have been playing may just be the prelude to a historic season.
“I think the main focus is staying focused during a game, no matter what happens in the first inning,” Todd said. “I think that we all know in the back of our minds that we have a full seven innings to play, and as long as we do stay focused in all of those seven innings and we play to our potential that we know we can play ... we have a chance of being pretty successful this year.”
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