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Rutgers rides streak into midweek matchup against Seton Hall

<p>Junior left-hander Ryan Fleming struck out three and allowed just two hits and a pair of walks in two innings of work against Saint Joseph’s Sunday.</p>

Junior left-hander Ryan Fleming struck out three and allowed just two hits and a pair of walks in two innings of work against Saint Joseph’s Sunday.

The Rutgers baseball team has been playing its best baseball of late, having won 6 of its last 8 games.

The Scarlet Knights (14-16, 2-4) just completed a 3-0 week after picking up wins over Atlantic 10 teams Fordham and St. Joseph’s, with two of the wins coming at Bainton Field.

They are now 7-1 at home on the season and picked up their sixth road victory of the year in the series finale against St. Joseph’s on Sunday.

With the team gaining confidence with the wins and each game, the players feel like they are in a good spot as they prepare for a home-and-home showdown against in-state rival Seton Hall (22-10, 1-2).

“We’re really starting to learn how to win baseball games, which is what we are always looking to do,” said head coach Joe Litterio. “Early on it was tough because it was a younger team, and you have to learn some things because it doesn’t come easy.”

One of the things the Knights look to improve on the upcoming weeks is their ability to expand leads during games.

Early in the season, they would often jump out to early leads, but were unable to increase their advantages and opponents would come back to win the games.

This hurt them especially against Michigan State, as Rutgers dropped all three games in its opening Big Ten series despite holding an early lead in each game.

But the Knights have gotten better at adding insurance runs, which helped them win more games since then.

This was evident in their 11-1 victory over St. Joseph’s on Friday, as they scored in each of the first four innings to grab an 8-0 lead, and the pitchers did the rest by keeping the opponent in check.

“Now we understand what we have to do to keep expanding leads,” Litterio said. “It doesn’t have to be me yelling in the dugout to expand anymore, because now they’re doing it. They understand that 3-0, 4-0, needs to turn into 8-0 if we can do it. That makes things a lot easier.”

With the offense becoming more aggressive and scoring more runs, the pitching has been equally sharp in recent games.

Reigning Big Ten Pitcher of the Week Howie Brey picked up two wins in his last two starts, including a shutout victory over Indiana.

In his last 15 innings of work, he allowed just 1 earned run and struck out 15 batters.

The rest of the pitching staff has also stepped up. Rutgers allowed just 5 runs in its last three games.

Playing in mostly cold weather at the start of this season resulted in tougher conditions for hitters, which pitchers took advantage of.

“We know how important pitching and defense is for us, and then the hitting comes along with that,” Brey said. “We haven’t been walking people, and we’re making them put the ball in play, letting the defense make plays for us. That’s when you start getting in a rhythm and pitching well on the whole as a staff.”

The first game of the series for the Knights against Seton Hall will take place in South Orange, where the Pirates have posted a 12-1 record thus far.

Rutgers won both games of the series last season, though the Pirates enter with a better record and more impressive team this year.

Senior second baseman John Jennings was a big player for both games against Seton Hall last season and will again be key this year, coming in on a hot streak.

A two-time captain, the Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, native has six hits over his last three games, including a home run in a win over St. Joseph’s.

As a veteran on the Banks and at opposing venues, he understands the excitement surrounding games against a local foe like Seton Hall, and feels like the team is prepared based on how they have been playing of late.

“We’ve had a pretty good approach at the plate lately,” Jennings said. “We’ve been getting ourselves in good counts, setting ourselves up to get good pitches to hit. Our at-bats have been longer as well, and we aren’t seeing as many first-pitch outs. We all feel pretty good right now.”

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

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