Rutgers begins Big Ten play on short side of series sweep
It seemed like the Rutgers softball team was finally finding a groove.
Winning 7 of its last 9 games, including a comeback win in their first home game of the season against Hofstra, the Scarlet Knights were looking to continue their success at the Rutgers Softball Complex in Piscataway as they begun conference play.
But the Knights were host to Penn State this past weekend for their first Big Ten series of the season, and the hot play up until conference play took a turn for the worse, as Rutgers (15-19) would eventually be swept by the Nittany Lions (14-14).
What started off with a shaky start by freshman Whitney Jones would only foreshadow the three losses the Knights suffered against what is becoming a rivalry between the two schools.
“I think Whitney had some nerves in the first game,” said head coach Jay Nelson. “I probably shouldn’t have started her and came in with Dresden. But that’s all hindsight.”
The Santa Monica, California, native surrendered 2 earned runs off of a walk and three hits, only securing one out before Nelson pulled the young right-hander.
Senior Dresden Maddox would replace Jones, allowing 5 runs after walking six and giving up five hits.
Although the Knights would score 5 runs in the seventh to cut the Nittany Lions lead to four, Rutgers was unable to score again, and would take its first Big Ten loss of the season by a score of 12-8.
Freshman Nicolette Anico, sophomore Rebecca Hall and senior Melanie Slowinski would all register two hits in the loss, while junior Shayla Sweeney would close the game out pitching 2 2/3 innings, allowing 5 runs on four hits.
Anico has been batting second for some time now for the Knights. Nelson explains his reasoning being solely based on the need for run production down in the order.
“I need someone down in the order to drive some run in,” Nelson said. “I kind of wanted to drop Jordan cause the theory is, the pitchers let up a little bit when you're down in the order, as opposed to when you're three, four, five.”
The second game of the series was a nail-biter of a game until the ninth inning.
Maddox started in the circle for the Knights, as Marlaina Laubach started for Penn State for the second straight game, displaying her arm in an impressive nine innings pitched and 1 earned-run performance.
Saturday’s start would cap Laubach’s weekend off with a total of 12 and 1/3 innings pitched, allowing 1 earned run and striking out seven to improve her ERA to seventh best in the Big Ten.
The Nittany Lions struck first Saturday, with Lexi Knief singling up the middle plating Shelby Miller and taking a 1-0 lead.
The Knights would respond back in the second with a double steal, scoring Jordan Whitley and tying the game up at one a piece.
Maddox had a stellar performance in the circle Saturday after allowing 1 run in the first, going seven straight innings without allowing another run.
“I just went right at them and threw the pitches I knew would work and just work to my defense,” Maddox said.
Nelson sent out Maddox to the circle in the ninth expecting the same results, but Maddox failed to pitch as she had been all afternoon as she surrendered 3 runs off of four hits to surrender a 4-1 lead to the Nittany Lions.
Although the Knights would start the bottom of the ninth with a lead off hit from Carly Todd, followed by a walk from team batting average leader Stephanie Huang and a Penn State error, all runners were stranded as the tying run was retired at the plate.
Although Rutgers would surrender its second straight loss Saturday, Nelson said his team hit the ball well but it just didn’t capitalize when it had its chances.
In the third and final game of the weekend, the Knights would surrender their third straight loss by a score of 12-1, and the game ended early due to mercy rules.
Penn State started early, scoring 2 runs in the first to make the score 2-0.
The Nittany Lions would add at least a run in each inning for the rest of the game to blitz Rutgers in the final game.
Sweeney would earn the loss in Sunday’s game, allowing 7 earned runs on seven hits in 1 and 1/3 innings of work. Jones would replace Sweeney and give up 5 runs herself, before freshman Aubrie Levine would pitch the final inning of the game for the Knights.
The three conference losses this weekend put Rutgers at a rough start to conference play, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to pull themselves back.
“I think we just need to work on swinging at better pitches as a team,” Anico said after Sunday’s loss. “Just get back to the basics, talking and working hard to hopefully go out and play ball like we know how to.”
Nelson also stressed the need to improve on hitting with runners in scoring positions after Sunday's loss.
“Our clutch hitting needs to get better,” Nelson said.
Along with other mistakes such as not being able to hit the outside pitch, as well as making mental mistakes and throwing the ball to the wrong side of the plate, the Knights believe there is still time to improve.
“We want to be playing our best at the end of the year,” Nelson said. “So that when we enter conference tournament play, even if you're in the lower part of the bracket, you get a game with another lower bracket team so you can warm up and gain momentum and keep going. Everybody in the Big Ten is good, so you need to be playing your best to win. As far as being worried about it, no, but it gives us some things to work on.”
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