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Rutgers bats awaken in first winning weekend of season

<p>Senior outfielder Jackie Bates went 7-for-13 with six RBI at the Lobo Classic in Alburquerque. Her three-run homer to left field tied her for third all-time in program history. </p>

Senior outfielder Jackie Bates went 7-for-13 with six RBI at the Lobo Classic in Alburquerque. Her three-run homer to left field tied her for third all-time in program history. 

After struggling at the plate in the last two tournaments, the Rutgers softball team finally found its stroke.

The Scarlet Knights (6-6) exploded on offense at the Lobo Classic in Alburquerque, New Mexico, combining for 30 hits and 23 runs over the weekend.

“We did well and throughout the whole weekend we really hit the ball well,” said head coach Jay Nelson. “It took us a couple innings to get going in the first game, to shake the rust off. We hit the ball well, but have to work on our defense and locating pitches better."

Entering the tournament, the team had struggled offensively. They were finally able to connect with runners in scoring position, crossing five or more runs in one inning twice over the weekend.

The Knights arrived in the southwest on Friday due to the inclement weather in New Jersey and were unable to play the first two games of the tournament against New Mexico and CSU Bakersfield.

They began and ended the weekend on positive notes, winning two games out of the three to climb back up to the .500 mark.

On Sunday, they downed New Mexico, 9-6, behind a strong showing at the plate, scoring seven runs in the first two innings.

Senior outfielder Jackie Bates was able to connect on a pitch for her third home run of the season, driving in three runs in the top of the second. The Knights went on to register five hits and five runs in the breakout inning.

Bates went 7-for-13 on the weekend, driving in a total of six runs. With her three-run blast to left field, she moved into a tie for third on the program's all-time home runs list with 20 for her career. It could have been two home runs for her, but she was robbed at the fence against New Mexico.

“I hope that I can stay consistent with this and don’t fall into a slope or anything," Bates said. “We’ve been working on hitting in practice a lot as a team. Some people have gone in extra to practice on their own time. Getting more experience throughout the season and seeing more pitching has helped as well.”

Behind the combined performance of sophomore right-hander Dresden Maddox and senior left-hander Alyssa Landrith, the Knights were able to secure the win.

In Rutgers' only loss of the tournament, they jumped out to an early 5-1 lead in the top of the fourth against New Mexico. But thanks to a late rally, the Lobos scored nine runs in the bottom of the fifth and sixth innings.

Maddox entered in the fifth but was unable to hold the lead, surrendering six runs in an inning and a third.

"We had poor pitch location and it costs us,” Nelson said. “It’s key to keep the ball down and we didn’t do that at times. We made a couple of bad plays that ended up costing us."

Sophomore pitcher Shayla Sweeney found out she was pitching the first game of the series the night before, news she called a “nice surprise" leading up to the contest. 

The Haddon Heights, New Jersey, product came out and dominated to earn her first win of the season. She went the distance, surrendering four runs and scattered seven hits.

“I was definitely hitting my spots better than before,” Sweeney said. “I was working on keeping my pitches up — I kept mixing speeds to keep them off balance, which was working really well. It helps my confidence a lot, knowing that I have momentum going into spring break. I’m excited to get more wins.”

The Knights came back with seven runs in the fourth and fifth to retake the lead and ultimately win the game.

For the first time this season, Rutgers scored five or more runs in every game of a tournament. The Knights received strong contributions from the bottom of their lineup, with their bottom of the order hitters getting at least three hits in two of the three games.

Despite the uptick offensively, Nelson said still hasn’t seen his team play the clean game he wants them to.

When Rutgers arrives to Clearwater, Florida, for the Michele Smith Spring Break Tournament — a weekend in which the Knights went undefeated with six-straight wins — Nelson hopes it can produce the same improvements this time around.

“We must work on some things in practice this week that we have to clean up," he said. "I’ll look over the tape, but we definitely have to fix our errors because they cost us from getting out of innings unharmed.”

For updates on the Rutgers softball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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