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Rutgers seals series win over Nebraska with 8-4 victory on Sunday

The Rutgers baseball team hadn’t lost two consecutive series since last season and was looking to keep it that way after getting swept by Illinois last weekend. In the end, it was some timely contributions from many different players that brought the team back to its winning ways.

The Scarlet Knights (21-15, 6-6) took 2 out of 3 from Nebraska (17-21, 4-9), this weekend, winning their seventh series out of their last eight. It was also the first time ever that they won a series against the Cornhuskers.

“When you’re on your home field you have to win the series if you want to make the (Big Ten Tournament). We were able to do that, and that’s very exciting for the kids," said head coach Joe Litterio. 

Rutgers improved to 7-1 in its past eight series openers with a 4-2 win on Friday. 

Senior John O’Reilly led the charge, pitching until the ninth and giving up 2 runs on five hits with four strikeouts. He improved to 3-0 at home on the year, with an ERA of 0.78.

“I felt good with my fastball. I had a lot of movement on it and I was able to keep it in the strike zone,” O'Reilly said on how he managed to keep it together. 

He received help from his offense, as senior designated hitter Kyle Walker broke a 2-2 tie in the sixth with an RBI double, and sophomore second baseman Kevin Welsh provided insurance in the eighth with a fielder’s choice that scored a run. 

Redshirt freshman shortstop Dan DiGeorgio contributed the first run for the Knights with his first collegiate home run in the second.

After walking the leadoff batter in the ninth, O’Reilly exited for junior closer Serafino Brito, who got a double play and a strikeout to earn his fifth save of the year. O’Reilly admitted he had more confidence in Brito than most people, so he wasn’t disappointed that he wasn’t able to finish the game on his own.

While O’Reilly led Rutgers to a win on Friday, freshman pitcher Harry Rutkowski wasn’t able to follow suit on Saturday. The freshman didn’t get out of the first inning, allowing 5 runs, and the Knights weren't able to recover, losing 12-4.

In the wake of Rutgers' 8-run loss on Saturday, Litterio had a lot of praise for O’Reilly's performance against a team that would perform a lot better one day later.

“The way that Harry came out and struggled showed what kind of team they have, so John kind of goes unnoticed because you don’t know how they can swing it. He put up some zeros and pitched a hell of a game. You look back on it now and it becomes even more impressive how he was able to grind it through eight innings," Litterio said.

Freshman left fielder Mike Nyisztor offered a bright spot in the loss, driving in 3 of the Knights' 4 runs. Sophomore pitcher Tevin Murray also delivered a quality performance, pitching a career-high three innings in relief, allowing 1 run on two hits and striking out five.

Litterio made an interesting decision heading into Sunday’s game, starting graduate student Karl Blum on the mound. Blum was the starter for Tuesday’s game at Monmouth, marking the first time this season that a midweek starter started a game that same weekend.

“He was on four day's rest, and we limited him to four innings (on Tuesday) with the possibility of starting him on Sunday. (Pitching) coach Phil Cundari does an outstanding job of knowing what his pitchers can and can’t do, and he felt Karl could come out and give us a good start, which he did," Litterio said.

The move paid off, as Blum gave up just 2 runs on five hits in five innings of work, pacing Rutgers to an 8-4 win in the rubber game.

Blum managed to escape trouble twice in the first inning to keep Nebraska off the board. First, he got a double play after giving up singles to the first two batters, and after walking two straight batters, got a diving catch from DiGeorgio on a line drive right up the middle.

He wasn’t as fortunate two innings later, giving up a 2-run home run, but that was all he allowed, and the offense thanked him by tying the game in the bottom of the third. Junior catcher Nick Matera delivered a two-out, 2-run single to left to make it a new ballgame.

The tie game would not last long, as the Cornhuskers plated 2 in the fifth off sophomore pitcher Eric Reardon. Yet once again the Knights responded in the bottom of the frame, as Matera and junior third baseman Carmen Sclafani hit back-to-back home runs to give the team its first lead of the game. 

Matera drilled a 3-run home run over the right center field wall with two outs, and Sclafani followed suit with a shot that that landed in almost the same spot. It was just the second time Rutgers went back-to-back in a Big Ten game, which it first did against Illinois in 2015. The dinger also allowed Matera to tie his career high with five RBI's.

“I wasn’t trying to do too much. There were two outs, so I was just trying to stay in my approach up the middle, and I got some pitches to do it with … coach has been preaching two-out hits and that’s going to win us ballgames," Matera said.

The Knights brought home 2 more in the sixth to extend the lead to 4, and got scoreless outings from sophomore Tommy Genuario and Brito to keep it that way. Genuario came in after Nebraska took the lead in the fifth and held down the fort for Brito.

“You can’t say enough about what Tommy did. He came on in a big situation, calmed down everything, and got us the ball to Serafino. What he did may go unnoticed, but that’s a big part of the game right there," Litterio said. 

Rutgers remains at home to face St. Peter’s on Wednesday and hopes to use the momentum from this past series to secure a victory.

“I think we need to clean some things up, but the pitching was great, the bullpen was awesome, and we just need to continue this energy we have,” Matera said.

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

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