Tournament spot at stake when Rutgers hosts Michigan State

<p>Junior left-handed hurler Howie Brey is looking to bounce back against Michigan State after having a rough outing in the series with Indiana where the Knights were swept.</p>

Junior left-handed hurler Howie Brey is looking to bounce back against Michigan State after having a rough outing in the series with Indiana where the Knights were swept.

With 13 teams in the conference, only eight of them qualify for the Big Ten Tournament.

The Rutgers baseball team currently sits in the ninth spot in the conference after failing to capitalize on last weekend’s conference game against Indiana. Being the ninth-best team in the Big Ten is not where the Scarlet Knights (12-23-1, 5-7) envisioned themselves at the beginning of the season, and it’s not where they want to be after this weekend.

The chance for redemption for the Knights comes this weekend when they open up a three-game series against Michigan State at the confines of Bainton Field for their first home series in two weeks.

The Spartans (19-16, 4-5) present the perfect matchup for Rutgers — not because of how competitive they are, but because they comprise a team that currently sits in the way of the Knights making the Big Ten Tournament.

With 12 games left in the conference schedule, Michigan State travels to Bainton Field on Friday with the eighth best record in the Big Ten. A win in this weekend's series presents the perfect opportunity to jump the team sitting in the last playoff spot.

“They're a solid ball club — they have a couple of seniors that are on the mound that could be a tough challenge for us,” head coach Joe Litterio said before practice Thursday. “They are a team that is even with us in the conference, basically. It’s a huge weekend. Any time that you are in this part of the conference schedule, you need to get the tiebreakers. This is a big series where we are going to come out to get two or three (wins).”

When Rutgers went out to Bainton Field Thursday for its lone practice of the week, it focused on things that it otherwise would not have been able to do in games.

Sure, the Knights can go into the batting cages and face soft toss, pitching machines and assistant coach Tim Reilly’s batting practice. But with a chance to practice, Rutgers improved upon some other elements of the game.

The biggest thing for sophomore catcher R.J. Devish to practice on Thursday was not on the offensive aspect of the game. The important thing for the Knights is to cut down on mistakes in the field.

“Today in practice, we are mainly focusing on defense,” Devish said on Thursday. “We have been committing a couple (errors) lately — we just want to clean it up a little in the field. We started swinging the bat well (Wednesday), and we want to keep that going. For me specifically, I’ve been working on blocking.”

While offense has been an issue on the season for Rutgers where the batters have failed to convert timely hitting, the starting pitching has shined recently.

Junior left-handers Howie Brey and Mark McCoy both pitched well enough to win in the series against the Hoosiers, according to Litterio. Litterio also mentioned sophomore right-hander Gaby Rosa pitched effectively last weekend.

Litterio said he expects the same level of production against the Spartans, especially when the Knights need it most with postseason hopes on the line.

“I expect the same thing from our starting pitchers as they did last weekend,” Litterio said. “I’m hoping (McCoy) can keep doing what he’s doing. I know Howie (Brey) will be Howie — I always expect a lot from him. I know he had a rough couple of innings, but he can learn from it. I expect him to be 'on' this weekend. For Gaby, I’m curious to see how he will come around. His last few starts, he hasn’t pitched his best stuff. I want to see him come out and rebound.”

Brey admitted he did not have his best stuff the past two weekends, resulting in him being on the hook for the loss in his last two appearances.

But with enough time passing between starts and a whole week to prepare, Brey doesn’t anticipate his stuff being a problem against Michigan State.

“Last weekend, I kind of got into a little bit of a groove at the end, and I have to work off of that,” Brey said. “What’s been killing me at the beginning of games is the first and second inning. I haven’t been able to get into a groove and dominate the rest of the game. First of all, it all starts with strikes. When I get ahead of guys, I can throw whatever I want. This is a huge weekend, and Michigan State is right there with us (in the standings). Every weekend we go out for the sweep, but that’s exactly what we have to do.”

For updates on the Rutgers baseball team, follow @TylerKaralewich and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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