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Midseason Report Card: Rutgers baseball finally hitting stride

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Sweep in SC primes squad for B1G play this week.

Pittsburgh v Rutgers

A rare Sunday off day for the baseball team may not have come at a worse time because the team seems to finally be figuring it out. After a disappointing loss to Rider earlier in the week, the team traveled to South Carolina, for a three game set with USC Upstate in Spartanburg. Rather than wallow in their own self-pity, the team erupted, earning a series sweep.

Friday: Team captain Mike Carter tallied his first dinger of the season in the first inning and the Knights never looked back. After that, Serafino Brito finally pitched the game the coaches knew he could with 7 innings of shutout ball, but most importantly no walks. Brito’s interview is posted on BTN.

Saturday (Game 1): A five run 8th inning explosion turned a two run deficit into a 3 run lead. Max Hermann earned a save for the second straight game (12 career) when he shut out the Spartans for the final two frames.

Saturday (Game 2) The Knights on the back of star dual-sport star Jawaun Harris’s 3 bombs capped the sweep of the Saturday doubleheader and entire series. Gaby Rosa threw 5 innings to earn the win, putting him in double digits for his career with 10.

The B1G schedule starts this weekend, so this is much needed momentum. But how has the team graded out so far?

Offense: B+, Trending slightly up.

They can hit. The approach is pretty good (team .346 OBP) and if the other team's pitchers get behind in the count, RU can crush it (17 homers as a team). They do have more poise with runners in scoring position than the average team and score a fair share of 2 out runs. They also seem to grasp momentum when the opposing pitcher is rattled hence the crooked numbers like we saw in the finale at Miami (FL). Carter (.402 BA) and Harris (7 HR, 13 SB) are often in the middle of the rallies but it seems everyone has contributed at some point in a key spot. Milo Freeman has bounced back from a nice sophomore slump as well batting .286 so far. The team’s overall numbers don’t blow you away, but the timely hitting is what kept the team afloat, I’m sure SABRmetrics would show it if we had access to those.

I'd like to see some improvement in the off-speed pitch hitting, but that could come over the course of the season as seeing it in a cage is nothing like the real thing on breaking stuff. They also run the bases pretty well, and stole bases well though not as many as 2016 (34 as a team compared to 29 allowed).

Defense: D+, Trending up.

Defensively, the outfield defense seems OK, but the number of errors in the infield is extremely troubling. 23 games into the season and five players have 5 errors or more each for a team total of 40, ouch. Especially in warm conditions they need to do better. I'll also hedge a hair on this because pitchers have walked too many people, the longer the fielders are out the less sharp. On the flip side, when your pitchers are struggling you can’t give the opponent extra outs. And when runners are on, the team has only turned 12 double plays, a number that MUST go up.

I give this a trending up because the team has stabilized its infield alignment with Freeman at first, Kevin Welsh at short, Chris Campbell at third, and now Sclafani at 2nd.

Starting pitching: C-, Trending up.

Pitching was an absolute mess early in the season as expected, though it seems the coaching staff’s methods may be paying off. For example, Brito mentioned his focus is on pitching up versus pitching down. He has good life up in the zone so if he can throw strikes down in the zone, he will be effective. More starts for position players Campbell and Rosa has been key since they throw strikes. The staff overall is walking 4.9 batters per 9 innings, but Campbell and Rosa combine for 3.2. James Torres (walks) and John O’Reilly (hits) have struggled.

Bullpen: C+, Trending even.

With the lack of experience in the starting rotation, being bullpen heavy isn't a terrible idea, especially this day in age. Coming into the season this would have been considered a strength of the team. It has not turned out to be despite Hermann’s solid contributions to shut the door in the 9th. Ryan Fleming was expected to be a key fireman after a great season last year, but has struggled mightily this season. Joe Neglia has performed well and could be in line for more innings. He and Kyle Muller have been eased into action as freshmen, but may be counted on more as virtually everyone else on the staff needs to see improved results.

Coaching strategy: C+, Trending even.

The strategy on offense also seems to be fine with me not just on the approach to a count but how to deploy bunts, stolen base attempts, and situational hitting. Just because you have speed, sometimes it’s the threat or keeping a first baseman close to the bag that results in mistakes from the opposition. Defensively, it seems everyone was committing errors so not too much the coaching staff can do in-season.

With the pitching staff, when only three guys are reliably getting outs there’s not much you can do in-season, either. Pitching Rosa and Campbell more may have saved the team from a complete meltdown and the staff recognized that.

Player Development: D+, Trending down.

This is likely the most concerning area. Though I will note the team’s resiliency and toughness could be coming from the coaching staff.

We do have half a season to go, but we knew this team could hit. Comparing A guy like Freeman is having a better year than he did in 2016 but we knew he had it in him after 2015. Chris Folinusz has shown signs of promise and if he can cut down just a few more base stealers, would be likely the most improved position player by a mile as he will shatter his previous career bests in virtually every offensive category. Nick Matera has also shown improvement.

Defensively, they just don't have enough guys who have versatility to play tremendous defense in the infield and hit consistently. The word on Welsh is he is a solid defender, but he has made errors. I thought Rosa would do better with the stick and glove than he has. Last year he only made 11 errors in 54 starts and hit close to .250. As much praise as I have given Campbell, he does have 10 errors.

On the other hand Rosa pitching more has resulted in Ws after not pitching at all in 2016 and struggling mightily in 2015. Other than Rosa, only Herrmann (ERA down from 3.13 to 2.77) has pitched better so far than a year ago. Most college pitchers get better every year (even if it doesn't show in the W-L) because their stabilizer muscles in their shoulder area will get stronger and knowledge of the game improves, like the old men amazing at shooting basketballs at the local Y.

Recruiting early returns: Inc.

What this regime has done well is recruit gamers. Rosa, Campbell, Carter in particular really have some Jersey toughness (chip on the shoulder) to them. The jury is out so far as the freshmen have not seen too much action so far other than Welsh.

Coach Litterio mentioned his like for multi-sport athletes which usually means more outfield and corner infield types than pitchers or shortstops. That has proven true so far this season. Finding pitchers in the northeast is tough, but New Jersey has plenty of high school teams to choose from and this staff needs to sell them on RU.

On the recruiting I can tell you from personal experience (and this not me being an old man) that the level of play in baseball has gone down in the state of New Jersey in the last 20 years. For this reason i think the job of recruiting especially when everyone wants to go somewhere warm will really hurt RU and the Big Ten. When I looked at the records of the teams across the league I was honestly shocked RU was not even close to the cellar at this point. So many other schools are facing the same barriers.

Overall assessment: C, trending up

Northeast teams take longer to get it going. The travel early in the season is tough as well as the team has played 21 of their first 23 games on the road. The old adage, “Win your home games” has had no opportunity to take effect yet.

If you added up the individual grades, it would likely surprise you the team has won 9 games, but that’s a testament to the competitiveness and perseverance inside many of these players, namely Carter, Campbell, and Herrmann. Rosa has stabilized the rotation and Harris is simply an elite athlete. A few less walks coupled with better defense and this team is in the hunt for a spot in the 8 team Big Ten Tournament.

Our friends at Crimson Quarry posted their own baseball power rankings so you can see how the Knights stack up on the even of league play.

What’s next?

The might be just in time because a home and home series with Monmouth is a precursor to commencement of the Big Ten schedule against rival and first place Maryland next weekend.