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Rutgers baseball heads into B1G play with momentum

Rider contest postponed, Penn State in town Friday.

Rutgers baseball’s catchers have contributed offense and defense.
Bob Cancro

Rutgers baseball game against Rider scheduled for Wednesday has been postponed due to expected inclement weather. The team’s next game is hosting Penn State Friday at Bainton Field.

The B1G schedule starts this weekend, and the strong spring break trip brought much needed momentum. How has the team graded out so far in 2018? Below are the overall grades and how they have trended over the first 18 games.

Offense: B+, Trending slightly up.

Despite losing many key players from the 2017 club, the Rutgers offense has performed just as effectively in 2018. It seems the staff has pulled the right strings as almost every turn as the eight known commodities heading into the year have nearly doubled. Kyle Walker (.417) and Kevin Blum (.357) in the two of the top spots on the team in batting average? The team has hit .293 so far this year, so it’s not by default. One big reason is the jump by Luke Bowerbank who has simply been on fire of late. Jim Duffy must be doing something right with these guys in preparation.

Reason for not a even higher grade is that the slugging percentage is lower than opponents despite the team’s record. The team has hit 5 homers (same as opponents), but only managed 24 doubles, while opponents have hit 36 for comparison. Perhaps if Jawuan Harris returns from suspension or Nick Matera gets it going, then the offense will be hitting on all cylinders. Matera’s six extra base hits lead the team but he surely can do better than he has so far, which is saying a lot considering he reached base in the team’s first 16 contests.

Defense: B, Trending even.

Defensively for the second year in a row we have seen some shuffling in the infield early on, but the errors have not been as many, nor nearly as damaging as the early going a season ago. There have been some miscues, but some spectacular grabs as well that don’t show up in the box score. Rutgers has committed only 25 errors while the opposition has made 39. I like this comparison because both teams are facing similar sun, weather, and field conditions.

With Dan DiGeorgio doing so well, Carmen Sclafani has played more third base. With Kevin Welsh at shortstop, DiGeorgio at second, and the three headed monster at catcher (Matera, Tyler McNamara, and as needed A.J. Gallagher), Rutgers has been strong up the middle. Harris and Kevin Blum have each made an error in center field, but contributed more than their share of run saving plays as well. Welsh does have nine errors, which is worth keeping an eye on, but with the team winning he’ll stay at short a while longer.

Starting pitching: B. Trending up.

Phil Cundari seems to be the real deal so far. John O’Reilly has been fine of late as the team’s ace after a rocky start. #2 starter Serafino Brito (10.5 K/9) struggled and was been moved to the closer role with generally positive results. In his place two true freshmen, Harry Rutkowski (2-0, 25 K) and Eric Heatter (2.35 ERA) have manned the #2 and #3 starter roles, both impressively. The team has used the third game of series at times plus the midweek games often to try to get innings for struggling pitchers. It has gotten a few guys straightened out, but the ones who have struggled allowed Rutgers several innings to make a comeback in those games. If the team eyes a midweek game they really want to win, Kyle Gerace (2.89 ERA) has proven effective as the 4th starter or long man out of the pen if needed.

I have nothing against Casey Gaynor, the former pitching coach who is my age. But Gaynor compared to Cundari is like replacing me with my dad, Phil has 32 years of experience coaching. There’s just experience Cundari brings more than a younger coach has under his belt. He’s also really focused on the mental side of baseball.

Bullpen: B+, Trending up.

With the lack of starters last year, the bullpen was constantly in just get by mode. This year the team replaced all-time program save leader Max Herrmann with grad transfer from Duke Karl Blum. Karl (2 saves) was strong early, but struggled as of late. Despite his command issues, the coaching staff seems to have defined roles out of the bullpen at this point. Of course they could change, but college baseball is often not as easy a level to do this. Working backward, Brito has now grabbed the closer role with Ryan Wares (3.86 ERA) the 8th inning guy. Karl Blum is the 7th inning because his resume and skills still have the upside. Collin Kiernan (3-1, 1.74 ERA) is the team’s “fireman”, often coming into sticky situations with runners on base. He hasn’t stranded them all, but done an impressive job, leading the team in wins. Tommy Genuario (4.05 ERA) serves as the bridge guy, often pitching two plus innings to propel Rutgers to or through the middle innings. Gerace is ready as the true long man.

Of course playing several days in a row means these responsibilities often get shuffled a little bit, and that’s where Eric Reardon, Jacob Kodros, and Tevin Murray come in. Each pitcher has seen limited action so far, but has their feet wet in the 2018 season and can add additional contributions as the season progresses.

Coaching strategy: A, Trending even.

The strategy on offense has been aggressive on the basepaths and Rutgers never seems to be out of a game (other than that one game they didn’t seem to show up.) The late rallies have been impressive to see and one reason for it is how the staff has kept players fresh by rotating a lot of position players in and out. As a result, pinch hitters have come in and done damage in key spots several times, particularly with extra base hits to grab momentum and often the lead in the process. Milo Freeman (.520 SLG) is becoming an ace pinch hitter, while getting an occasional start to stay fresh has been huge. Carmen Sclafani (.333 BA, .500 SLG) has gotten less starts with the emergence of Walker, but his impact as pinch hitter may be bigger than the stats he accumulated in starts.

With the pitching staff, Litterio and Cundari have tinkered with players’ roles to try and get the most out of them. As mentioned in the bullpen commentary, there has been a clear plan with the relievers that has gotten the most out of them so far. It’s easy to look smart when starters are eating up innings like they have so far this year, but credit the coaches with their ability to put players in situations they can succeed.

Player Development: A, Trending up.

This was the most concerning area to me a season ago, but has completely flipped so far this season. Kyle Walker, Dan DiGeorgio (17 runs, 6 SB)? I never heard of these guys. Just kidding. Kevin Blum at the beginning of the year was Karl’s younger brother but seems to make things happen when he is involved. DiGeorgio and Blum both redshirted last year, while Walker hit under .200 each of the last two years. All three players have been all over the basepaths in the last two weeks.

On the mound, is every pitcher better than he was a season ago? This seems logical that 18-22 year old guys would continue to improve, but that’s not always the case. New player development coach Peter Barron was an under the radar hire compared to the other new staff members, but on the field improvement is plain as day. Ryan Wares on the mound has shown amazing improvement as exhibit A.

Recruiting early returns: A-.

Despite the third baseman of the future (Davis Schneider) opting for the minor leagues last summer, the freshmen have been solid. Two of the team’s top three starters (Rutkowski and Heatter) are true freshmen and been awesome at times. Mike Nyisztor (19 RBI) has settled in left field and driven in a lot of runs regardless of where in the order he has hit. Kiernan is ahead of schedule as well as he leads the team in ERA.

The staff has gotten Jacob Kodros some time and he is on the right path. Anthony DeRosa seems like a guy they want to play more, but he may need to wait his chance as the team is hot right now. The rest of the freshmen haven’t been needed yet, but baseball is a long season so they could make appearances down the line. Dylan McNulty should have a good career, but he hasn’t appeared in a game yet.

Overall assessment: A-, trending up

Northeast teams normally take longer to get it going and a tough matchup with ranked Miami (FL) to start the year is always tough. Since then the team has shown a lot of fight in games they are down or allow an opponent to come back, but not give it all away. No one could have expected more thus far from the team collectively.

If you added up the individual grades, it would be in the A-/B+ range which sounds about right. With a little more luck, the team could have an even better record, then again a few breaks the other way and they could only have a .500 record. You are what your record says you are and 11-7 is pretty good in a sport where no one wins them all. So the team could play better, but even if they maintain their current level of play should be right in the thick of the race for the Big Ten conference tournament, the preseason goal and best barometer of the program’s progress in 2018.

What’s next?

The first Big Ten series of the season begins this Friday at 3:00 pm with Penn State in town. Saturday and Sunday first pitches are both at 1 pm.