Rutgers eyes successful weekend after getting swept in first Big Ten series
Head coach Jay Nelson wasn’t pleased with the Rutgers softball team's three-game sweep at the hands of Big Ten rival Penn State last weekend.
“Losing three games in a row was tough,” Nelson said. “We beat Hofstra right before the series and Hofstra handled Penn State pretty easily. I think part of it is Penn State has our number right now. They have a mental edge on us. It's gonna take someone to step up for us.”
The good news for the Scarlet Knights (15-19) is the team on the other side this weekend won’t be in blue and white.
The bad news is they'll have another tough opponent in front of them.
Illinois (21-10) is having a promising year thus far, winning 7 of their last 10, including a 2 out of 3 series win over Nebraska to start the season off 2-1 in Big Ten play.
One thing the Knights will have to do in order to take down the hot Fighting Illini will be for the pitchers to hit their spots.
Illinois boasts a lineup with eight batters over the .300 mark, with a team average of .324.
“Knowing that they're batting over .300, they're obviously good hitters,” said junior pitcher Shayla Sweeney. “They can put the ball in play, so I have to just force ground balls and pop-ups.”
Rutgers will also need to capitalize on moving runners over and scoring runs, something that has been a pressing problem for the Knights.
A crucial key to winning the series this weekend is scoring runners that are on base with no outs. Illinois' top three pitchers hold an impressive ERA of 1.57, 3.06 and 3.17.
One thing Rutgers will work on this week in preparation for its second Big Ten series of the year is producing more runs by tallying consecutive hits.
“I think this week, we're gonna focus on hitting,” said sophomore Rebecca Hall. “Stringing hits together when we have runners in scoring position so we can produce more runs.”
Rutgers failed to string together hits to score any runs after the second inning in the game Saturday against the Nittany Lions to help Dresden Maddox secure the win.
The Knights have struggled the past couple weeks with locating their pitches, escalating thier team ERA to a 4.16.
Nelson said neither his staff nor himself are satisfied with the high ERA.
“I don’t think our pitchers are satisfied with their ERA’s either,” Nelson said. “We want to keep reducing our ERA. The thing we don’t want to do is continue to look at our stats and feel like we have to live to that stat.”
Something that Nelson and his pitchers know is that the Big Ten conference is not easy. Nelson said the Big Ten is one of the strongest conferences in the country, boasting the No.1 team in the country in Michigan.
Sweeney knows that in order to get outs in a stacked conference, she will have to execute her pitches better and keep the ball low.
“Hitting my spots and keeping the ball low,” Sweeney said referring to what it will take to get back on track. “Force ground balls and make plays to get a win.”
Losing three straight games to start conference play isn’t the most satisfying thing to Rutgers, but it doesn’t mean it is throwing in the towel.
“It just means we need to focus and continue working on things in practice and stay together as a team and play hard,” Hall said.
The Knights are just looking to compete. Win or lose, Nelson will have his players ready to compete, and according to him, things will eventually fall into place.
“Obviously, wins are your goal,” Nelson said. “But my goal is to get us to compete, and if we do, things will fall our way.”
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