Tomorrow is opening day for the Rutgers baseball team, as they start their season against nationally ranked Miami for the second straight year. Last season, Rutgers was swept in a four game series against the Hurricanes, who went to play in the College World Series. It marked the start of a difficult and disappointing season for coach Joe Litterio and his players, as they finished just 19-35-1. Their transition to the Big Ten was a rocky one, as they went just 7-17 in conference play. However they ended the regular season on a high note, winning two out of three against #13 Iowa.
There is hope for improvement this season. Coach Litterio had this to say in the season preview on scarletknights.com, "I think last year we got caught up in going into the Big Ten for the first year and setting expectations too high. This year we just talked about playing each series as a series, trying to win that series. I think we got too big in our heads and our goals to where guys were coming off a 30-win season in 2014 as a lot of freshmen, it came easy to them. So that was one of the major things, to make it small again."
Rutgers had a Big Ten worst 6.34 ERA last season and allowed 7.2 runs per game. The offense also struggled, as the team averaged only 4.8 runs per game and had just one starter bat over .300 for the season. Outfielder Tom Marcinczyk was the lone standout, garnering Big Ten third team honors with a .325 batting average, 7 home runs, 36 RBI's and 34 runs scored. Senior infielder Chris Suseck looks to build off last season, when he hit .281 with 30 RBI's, scored 32 runs and had 13 stolen bases. Rutgers was third in the Big Ten in stolen bases, with four players swiping 11 or more.
The Big Ten media poll picked Michigan to repeat as conference champions. They only release the top six teams and Rutgers was not included. However, Marcinczyk, fellow outfielder Mike Carter and starting pitcher Howie Brey were all named players to watch this season by the media. Jon Nyatawa, baseball writer for the Omaha World-Herald, tabbed Rutgers 11th out of 13 Big Ten teams, the same spot they finished last season.
Brey is a senior and ace of the pitching staff. The lefty starter led the staff last season in innings pitched, strikeouts and complete games. He also led the nation with the most innings pitched (80+) without allowing a stolen base. All three top starters from last season return to the rotation, as redshirt junior Kyle Driscoll and sophomore John O'Reilly join Brey. The staff ace talks about starting opening day against #4 Miami and the importance of throwing strikes below.
One thing Rutgers will need to improve on this season is starting games better, as they were outscored 87-66 in the first two innings of games last year. They also struggled mightily in the 8th inning, as opponents outscored them 78-24. Getting off to a better start in general will be a focus this weekend against Miami. Last season, Rutgers lost their first six games and started just 3-14, digging themselves in a hole they were unable to get out of. A few freshman are expected to play right away, including Jawuan Harris. He is also on the football team and was named 'best athlete" in the Big Ten by Baseball America. Harris had mentioned the importance of having the opportunity to play both sports at Rutgers.
After this opening weekend series, Rutgers travels to George Mason the following weekend, before making their home debut Wednesday, March 2nd against Lafayette. They open Big Ten play the last weekend of March at Michigan State. Let's hope the boys get off to a better start this season and give the Hurricanes some trouble this weekend in Miami. The scarlet knights are aiming for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007. This weekend's action can be seen live on ESPN and is linked here: Friday 7pm / Saturday 7pm / Sunday 12pm