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Catcher thrives in cleanup position

<p>Junior catcher Jeff Melillo leads the Knights in RBI and slugging  after moving from the eighth spot last year to the four hole.</p>

Junior catcher Jeff Melillo leads the Knights in RBI and slugging  after moving from the eighth spot last year to the four hole.

Jeff Melillo hit eighth a season ago. He hit below the Mendoza line, slugged barely above it and had more strikeouts than hits.

Now the junior catcher hits cleanup.

Melillo has played to his lineup position. He sports a .400 on-base percentage and a .607 slugging percentage. The latter leads the Rutgers baseball team.

But before Melillo put it together on the field, head coach Fred Hill gambled with the lineup by moving him from the back of the lineup to the fourth spot.

“I learned about a couple hours before the first game of the year,” Melillo said. “He waited a while to tell us the lineup.”

The Scarlet Knights (3-3) entered the year without their third and fourth hitters from last year, graduated sluggers Michael Lang and D.J. Anderson.

Lang and Anderson earned their way into the middle of the order by fitting Hill’s concise hitting philosophy.

“There are two things that are important: getting on base and [hitting] with runners in scoring position,” Hill said. “I’m not concerned about anything else.”

Lang’s .445 OBP led the Knights. Anderson finished second on the team with 25 RBI.

Melillo was nowhere near the lead. The North Hunterdon High School product finished with a .248 OBP and 13 RBI, good for second-to-last among Rutgers everyday players in both categories.

The departure of Lang and Anderson gave all Rutgers hitters an equal opportunity to occupy the middle of the order. According to Hill, Melillo earned it.

“He had a good fall and preseason. He was swinging the bat really well,” Hill said. “He has a little pop. He has a chance to hit the ball over the fence every once in a while. He was put in the air because of the work that he did.”

Junior right fielder Steve Zavala is the one carryover from the heart of last year’s order. Zavala’s and Melillo’s relationship stems back four years through summer league teams.

Zavala noticed something different this summer about the catcher.

“He seems to be a little more relaxed out there,” he said. “He had a great summer, so it’s more of a confidence thing.”

Whether Melillo hits eighth or fourth, the Annandale, N.J., native maintains the same approach. He sacrifices plate patience — he walked 10 times in 119 at-bats last year — but his hitting philosophy fits his cleanup role.

“The approach stayed the same as it always was,” Melillo said. “Just to try and drive balls to drive people in and get on base for people to drive me in.”

The rest of the lineup this year has not missed a beat. The Knights scored at least five runs in their last four games.

They are fulfilling Hill’s philosophy of getting on base with a .382 percentage, which has given Melillo plenty of opportunities with his team-leading 17 RBI.

Rutgers travels to No. 10 Georgia Tech this weekend. While the out-of-conference play gives him opportunities to tinker with the lineup, Hill expects to keep things similar. And Melillo is as likely to secure his spot as anyone

“To be frank, we want to win the game,” Hill said. “We’re not just going to put a guy into the game. I’m not a big ‘change-the-lineup-every-day’ type guy.”

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