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Michigan State sweeps Rutgers in close Big Ten series opener

<p>Senior Howie Brey allowed 4 runs while striking out three over six-plus innings in Rutgers series opener against Michigan State.</p>

Senior Howie Brey allowed 4 runs while striking out three over six-plus innings in Rutgers series opener against Michigan State.

Entering its first Big Ten series of the season, the Rutgers baseball team was looking to shake off a stretch of tough and close losses.

While it played some more close games against one of the nation’s top teams in Michigan State, it again found itself on the wrong side of the series and was swept to open conference play.

The Scarlet Knights (8-14, 0-3) dropped all three games against the Spartans (18-3, 3-0), and were hoping for better results after playing solid baseball throughout the weekend.

“We pitched well and played well, but right now, we’re looking for the next step in the program, and that’s to go out and win these close games,” said head coach Joe Litterio. “We have to learn how to win these close games going forward to make this a successful season.”

In the opener of the doubleheader on Saturday following a Friday rainout, the Knights fell, 5-2, after jumping out to a two-run lead.

Senior first baseman Chris Suseck and freshman outfielder Jawuan Harris each had an RBI in the game.

The Spartans broke through for 2 runs in the bottom of the fourth inning to tie the game, then added 3 insurance runs in the late innings to hold on for the 5-2 win.

Senior pitcher Howie Brey (1-3) started for the Knights in the first game, completing 6.1 innings and striking out three while allowing 4 earned runs.

In six starts, the veteran has pitched to a 3.66 ERA and leads the team in innings pitched (39 1-3) and strikeouts (33).

Despite the team’s four-game losing streak, Brey remains optimistic about the team’s outlook moving forward because of how they have played against some of the nation’s top teams, such as Miami and Michigan State.

“We’re improving each weekend, but we have to start capitalizing on the improvements that we’ve made,” he said. “We’ve been in all these close games against some of the best teams in the nation, and it’s disappointing to lose, but we held a lead in all three games and that gives us some hope. We’re looking forward to continuing conference play.”

In the second game of the doubleheader, Rutgers recorded 10 hits, but fell in another close game, 5-4.

Senior catcher R.J. Devish had three hits from the leadoff spot in the game, and Harris blasted his third home run of the season and finished with RBI.

The Knights again held a lead in the game at 3-2 after the third inning, but were unable to hold on.

Junior pitcher Kyle Driscoll earned the start for Rutgers, throwing 4.2 innings and allowing four earned runs while taking the loss.

After his departure, the bullpen combined to give up just 1 run in 3.1 innings of work.

Harris’ home run cut the deficit to 5-4 in the eighth inning, but the Knights were retired in the ninth as the Spartans held on for the win.

The freshman’s emergence as an impact player has been a welcoming sign for Rutgers, and he feels as if he can continue to produce in Big Ten play.

“I always have high expectations for myself,” Harris said. “I just want to contribute to the team and help us win games, because that’s what is most important right now.”

In the Sunday finale, Rutgers dropped another third close one, 6-5.

They held a 5-0 lead heading into the third inning, but the Spartans chipped away for the remainder of the game to comeback with six runs and win.

It has been these kinds of games that have frustrated the Knights of late, as they have frequently shown their ability to play competitively with top teams, but have been unable to hold on for wins.

As they get set to host Monmouth (11-11, 3-0) for a home game at Bainton Field on Tuesday, Rutgers is searching for a quick turnaround to get back in the win column after a stretch of frustrating results.

“I believe it’s been the little things that we know how to do and can do that have been escaping us in certain situations,” Litterio said. “It’s things like missing a cutoff man, the little things we need to pay attention to over the course of the game that we need to start seeing to put us in better positions to win these games.”

For updates on the Rutgers baseball team, follow @Mike_OSully2 and @TargumSports on Twitter.

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