Rutgers swept by No. 18 Illinois
The Rutgers baseball team came into its second series against a top-25 team this season looking for results. The team certainly got results, but they weren’t the ones it wanted.
The Scarlet Knights (18-14, 4-5) suffered their first sweep of the season at the hands of No. 18 Illinois (23-8, 9-3) this weekend. It was the first series loss since losing 2 of 3 to then-No. 9 Miami to open the season back in February, and their first sweep since their season-ending series against Northwestern last year.
The sweep wasn’t without its high points, and there were fireworks from the very beginning. The series started off with a bang on Friday night, in a back-and-forth affair that saw Rutgers pull a massive comeback, only to fall short in the end, 13-12.
The Fighting Illini put the Knights on the ropes early, scoring 9 runs in the bottom of the first and seemingly putting the game out of reach. But fighting back from adversity is nothing new to Rutgers this season, as it responded with 10 runs of its own in the fourth to take an improbable lead.
It marked the team’s first double-digit inning since it scored 11 against Georgetown five years ago.
“We knew we had enough time (to come back) because we had eight innings to chip away at that lead,” said junior center fielder Jawuan Harris. “We’ve done it before, so we just had a positive mindset. Everyone tried to do something purposeful when they came up, and we were able to put up 10 runs.”
That fourth inning started modestly enough, with a walk to redshirt freshman shortstop Dan DiGeorgio. But, the wheels started to turn when junior catcher Nick Matera and fifth-year senior infielder Chris Folinusz both singled to load the bases. Harris hit a sacrifice fly to score the first run, and junior third baseman Carmen Sclafani followed with an RBI double.
When senior designated hitter Milo Freeman struck out one batter later, the Knights had two outs in the inning and were still down by 7. Even with the odds against them, they kept the rally going.
Sophomore Kevin Welsh hit a 2-run double and came around to score on an error. Junior right fielder Luke Bowerbank stole home to cut the lead to 2 and Harris eventually hit a 3-run double to make it 10-9 in Rutgers' favor.
Freeman would hit his first home run of the season an inning later to increase the lead to 2, but Illinois answered with 3 runs an inning later to take the lead. The Knights tied it in the seventh, and the Illini scored the decisive run in the eighth before retiring Rutgers in order in the ninth.
Despite the loss, head coach Joe Litterio praised his team for overcoming a big deficit.
“We went down 9-0 right out of the gate, and it was still 9-0 after three full innings,” he said. “And yet we were able to end the fourth inning with the lead. I’m very proud of the way they responded. They didn’t collapse and fought back hard. It was a tough loss, but I was proud of how they hung in there and battled.”
The next day’s game had a much lower score, but it was still the same outcome for the Knights, losing the game 2-1.
Freshman pitcher Harry Rutkowski pitched six innings, striking out six and leaving nine runners on base, but only got 1 run of support for the second outing in a row.
“I don’t think (low run support) gives me pressure,” Rutkowski said. “It gives me an incentive to try not give up any runs and give the team the best chance to win. Still, it would have been nice if they put up more runs early.”
Rutgers had some opportunities to score, like when they had runners on second and third in the fourth, but was unable to break through like it did the previous day.
It finally cut the deficit to 1 in the seventh, but stranded the tying run on second base. The team would go hitless in the final two innings, guaranteeing the series loss.
Illinois completed the sweep on Sunday with a 10-4 victory, giving the Knights a season-high three-game losing streak.
Rutgers struck in the first on a double from Matera, while sophomore pitcher Eric Reardon held the Illini scoreless through two innings. It wouldn’t last though, as Illinois took the lead on a grand slam in the third, and added 3 more runs in the frame to take a 7-1 advantage.
The Knights got 3 back on senior designated hitter Kyle Walker’s first home run of the year, but were scoreless for the rest of the game. The Illini scored 3 more in the fifth to bring their lead back to 6, where it stayed for the remainder of the game.
Rutgers now faces in-state rival Monmouth (12-19, 6-3) today, their first Tuesday game in over a month. The Hawks are coming off a doubleheader sweep of Maine and Sacred Heart on Saturday, and have a chance to push the Knights' losing streak to four.
“They’re a good team, they’re ran by a very good coach who’s been there a long time,” Litterio said Sunday night. “We got to play a good game to beat them, and can’t take them lightly by any means (sic)."
A busy schedule means the Knights will keep at it and try to put their first sweep of the season behind them.
“If we keep hitting and playing defense I think we’ll be fine,” Harris said. “I don’t think it’s anything to worry about, and we’ll bounce back and get a couple wins this week.”
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