Rutgers wins 5th consecutive series for 1st time since 2010
The Rutgers baseball team has been achieving milestones it hadn’t reached in years all season long, and a trip to East Lansing did not stop it from continuing on that path.
By taking 2 of 3 at Michigan State (7-19, 1-5) this past weekend, the Scarlet Knights (15-10, 4-2) won five consecutive series for the first time since 2010. It was also the first time they won against the Spartans since joining the Big Ten, as they were swept in both 2015 and 2016.
Rutgers started off the weekend on Friday by doing something it hadn’t done in a long time — sweep a conference road doubleheader — as it defeated Michigan State 8-4 and 6-4. The last time the Knights won two games on the same day while playing at a conference opponent was in 2005, when they defeated Pittsburgh twice on March 26.
“We went into a conference weekend on the road, and to get out of there with a series win is especially important,” said head coach Joe Litterio. “Winning those tiebreakers at the end of the year is important, and we hold tiebreakers against Penn State and Michigan State, so those are big.”
Similar to last weekend against Penn State, Rutgers benefitted from solid pitching performances from senior John O’Reilly and freshman Harry Rutkowski.
O’Reilly followed his first career shutout last game with eight innings, giving up 4 runs on eight hits and two strikeouts. He also induced 12 groundouts and did not allow a runner to reach second base until the seventh inning.
“It’s important to give your best effort in the first game of a series, so it felt good to give my team a lot of innings,” O’Reilly said. “It was important for me to eat as many innings as I could to help the bullpen in a doubleheader.”
The offense took a while to get going in the first game, going scoreless in the first four innings while the Spartans scored 2 in the second. But, the Knights’ bats finally awoke in the fifth, scoring 5 runs on five hits, including a 3-run triple from junior center fielder Jawuan Harris to take the lead for good.
After Michigan State scored 2 in the eighth to trim the lead to 2 runs, Rutgers scored 2 insurance runs in the ninth and junior closer Serafino Brito shut the door with a scoreless ninth.
Rutkowski took the mound later that day, and went for seven innings with 1 earned run on four hits and four strikeouts. He has allowed just 2 runs in his last 25.2 innings of work, and the Knights are 7-0 in games that he has started.
After each team scored 1 run in the first three innings, Rutgers broke through with 4 in the fourth, and added 1 more in the seventh. The Spartans scored 3 in the final three innings, but Brito earned his fourth save of the season with another scoreless ninth.
Fifth-year senior first baseman Chris Folinusz and sophomore second baseman Kevin Welsh paced the Knights with two RBI's, and catcher Tyler McNamara and right fielder Luke Bowerbank, both juniors, each had one.
“We just came out and stuck to our approach offensively, scoring as many runs as possible and hitting balls up the middle and the other way,” Folinusz said. “Johnny and Harry both came out and pitched unbelievably, going deep into the game and saving the bullpen. If we get them a couple runs, we’ll be alright.”
Rutgers had a chance to sweep on Sunday, but fell short, losing 6-0. It was the first time the team was shut out this season, and the fourth time it lost the last game of a series after winning the first two.
The Knights could not find an answer for pitcher Mason Erla, who pitched seven innings with four hits and six strikeouts. The team also left eight runners on base, including eight in scoring position.
“Today was 30 degrees, real feel was 28, and they had a guy going the entire game,” Litterio said. “When it’s a cold day like Sunday it’s tough to hit, and the ball just didn’t bounce our way.”
Folinusz added that the approach he mentioned earlier wasn’t working well against Erla and Michigan State in the cold weather. He said the Spartans made great plays that stymied Rutgers' offense.
The Knights return home to take on Villanova on Wednesday in the first of five straight non-conference games, hoping to recapture the magic of that Friday doubleheader.
“We played very well,” Litterio said. “We pitched and played defense especially well that whole day.”
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