The 2019 Rutgers baseball season commences Friday, February 15 in familiar fashion, at Miami (FL) for the 10th time in the last 11 opening sets. The team lost several key contributors but added a few newcomers expected to make an immediate impact. The 2019 slate features 53 scheduled regular season games plus Big Ten Tournament action for the top eight finishers in the conference standings.
2018 in review
The ballclub posted their best overall winning percentage since 2014, the last campaign prior to competing in the Big Ten Conference. Early in the season, new pitching coach Phil Cundari appeared more like a shaman than just a whisperer as the team went on a tear, winning seven-of-eight weekend series during a stretch into mid-April. After that, the team played some wild games in Big Ten action and tapered off, unable to qualify for the Big Ten tournament. Finishing 25-25 for the campaign was still a step forward as the team ERA dropped from 6.11 to 4.82.
Three players named to last year’s Big Ten Preseason Honors List have moved on to the professional ranks. Jawuan Harris (San Diego 7th round draft pick), Nick Matera (drafted by Philadelphia), and staff ace John O’Reilly (signed by Pittsburgh) all moved on after productive careers. The team also graduated three-year starters Chris Folinusz and Milo Freeman as well as Kyle Walker who finally put it together in his last year on the banks. Backup catcher AJ Gallagher and graduate transfer pitcher Karl Blum exhausted their eligibility while a few undergrads opted to depart the program in search of other opportunities.
Our own Lance Glinn did an interview with Head Coach Litterio last summer, who acknowledged the team “tailed off” late in the year. One of the big reasons for this was the freshmen hitting a wall as several had been among the team’s best players early in the season. As other teams on campus have new coaches bringing excitement they haven’t felt in quite some time, the baseball team is still left wondering what happened in the 2nd half of their season, though they remain optimistic for the future.
The coaching staff stayed intact with one more addition; Tom Conley was brought in as a new assistant coach to help with the catchers. Otherwise, it’s the second campaign for assistant coaches Cundari, Jim Duffy (outfield / hitting), and Peter Barron (player development). Litterio indicated in a discussion earlier this week that the new culture was established in 2018 and this offseason was simply a continuation.
It always starts with pitching, especially as college baseball still utilizes metal bats so balls can start flying all over the yard quickly. Pitching coach Phil Cundari loses workhorse O’Reilly, so Serafino Brito (8.1 K/9, 5 saves) returns to the rotation as the opening day starter after having served as the team’s closer in 2018. The secret to Brito’s success is pumping strikes low in the zone early in the count on both sides of the plate. His control improved tremendously last year and after getting ahead of hitters, he put them away with tremendous movement up in the zone.
Harry Rutkowski (13 starts, team leading 54 strikeouts) had a productive freshman campaign after being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 28th round of the MLB draft in 2017. The lefty is solidly built and hopefully can build on his 64 innings pitched as a rookie. He ran into trouble when he pitched too carefully with nobody on base, though quite often he was able to bear down and get critical strikeouts to strand those baserunners. He was name to Big Ten Preseason Honors List.
The third starter of opening weekend will be Tevin Murray. Murray is a tall lefty (6’6”, 215 lb.) with “unbelievable stuff” (10.7 K/ 9 innings), but struggled to command the zone (17 BB in 17.2 IP) until late last year. He was one of the few Knights who really came on late in the season (.135 BAA, 1.59 ERA in B1G play) and if he can parlay it into 2019 success, he has a chance to reach the next level because his physical gifts are all there.
In the bullpen, someone will need to step up and be the team’s next closer as Brito will begin the season as a starter. Tommy Genuario (4-0, 3.20 ERA, 2 saves) completed his conversion from outfielder to pitcher with tremendous success. Quite often he was brought in the middle innings to settle things down as a bridge to the back end of the bullpen to keep Rutgers within striking distance or preserve one-run leads. He could end up getting save opportunities, but may be even more valuable to the team as a fireman in the middle innings.
Other returnees include Kyle Gerace (3.60 ERA) who was a jack of all trades, spot starter Eric Reardon, and Joe Neglia (R-So.) who redshirted last year after some impressive flashes as a freshman in 2017. Behind them there are seven pitchers of the 13 true freshmen, so it will be baptism by fire early in the year as pitchers continue to build up their arms in live games. Of the newcomers, Garrett French and Victor Valderrama have the coaches excited about possibly pitching and also doing some hitting this season.
Cundari is one of the best in the business and how he can continue to develop pitchers within the program is the biggest linchpin of all. Litterio pointed to Cundari’s ability to teach his players to throw effectively inside as a key strength.
Behind the plate, Matera and AJ Gallagher have departed leaving Tyler McNamara as the only returnee. McNamara handled 130 chances without an error while only allowing one passed ball. Litterio indicated that McNamara is the opening day catcher as he has “earned it” and has “taken charge of the pitching staff.” He “really put the team on his shoulders and is leading the team from a practice standpoint. That’s what you want in your catcher, a guy who really takes charge of the team.” “We have two talented young catchers behind him, especially Peter Serruto, but we have to see how that plays out as we go throughout the year.” “Right now Tyler is the starting catcher and Pete is going to have to win time back there.”
Litterio, a former Scarlet Knight infielder, has shifted pieces around the infield the last two seasons as Rutgers had been inconsistent when the ball was hit on the ground. He sounded solid that “going into Miami is Carmen Sclafani at Third base, David Soto at shortstop, Kevin Welsh at Second base, and Chris Brito at First Base.” Tim Dezzi is a guy who “can play multiple positions” and figures in the mix as well with Dan DiGeorgio out for an extended period and Anthony DeRosa out for the season. For all the moving of Welsh, Dan DiGeorgio, Sclafani, Freeman, and Walker around the diamond last season, Rutgers still finished with a Big Ten leading 50 double plays turned. If they can reduce errors and maintain that proficiency for DPs, it will really help pitchers avoid and get out of jams.
In the outfield Rutgers returns three regulars in Luke Bowerbank, Mike Nyisztor, and Kevin Blum. Litterio indicated the current alignment is Bowerbank in left, Nyisztor in center, and Blum in right. None of them possess the speed of Harris, but each is sure-handed, all three players only made one error last year apiece. “Alex Russo is a freshman who has shown he can get it done as well.”
As is true seemingly every winter, Rutgers will need to replace more than half of its offensive production, most notably Matera (35 RBI), Harris (28 RBI, 22 SB), Freeman (.458 SLG mostly as a pinch hitter), Walker (14 game hitting streak), and Folinusz (34 RBI). With DiGeorgio out for an extended period, there will be plenty of at-bats spread among inexperienced batsmen at the college level.
Rutgers always seems to find bats that can at least be key to keeping the line moving. Welsh has a career average of just .244, but led the team in 2017 in batting with runners in scoring position (.346). Bowerbank spent a lot of time in the bottom third of the order as well, but led the team with a .303 batting average, though Blum hit .310 in much fewer at-bats. McNamara did not have enough at-bats to qualify amongst the Big Ten leaders but had a .433 on base percentage. DiGeorgio (team leading 39 runs, 17 stolen bases) is a solid option in the leadoff or #2 spot in the lineup, so hopefully he can return for Big Ten play and serve as a spark like he did last year.
The team plans to be aggressive on the basepaths as Litterio prefers a strategy of forcing the opponent to make plays defensively. They had pretty good speed throughout the lineup last year yet he believes the “roster has gotten even more athletic” with the new faces brought in and improvements seen during an offseason speed school, “our 60 times are pretty good.” “Top to bottom we have team speed.”
In the Power department, Sclafani (team leading .427 SLG), Nyisztor (31 RBI), and freshman first baseman Chris Brito will be in the middle of the order to drive in runs. Dezzi may get the most at-bats at designated hitter early on, though Litterio did not commit to anyone as a regular DH. Brito has the highest ceiling in terms of home run potential, “he’s the guy in the middle of our lineup who can drive the ball out of the ballpark at any given time.” Serruto also projects as a power threat long term, but like Nyisztor (who “needs to take the next step this year”) a year ago figures to be a doubles hitter as a freshman. The focus will be on driving the ball to the gaps.
Listen to #RBaseball road games on https://t.co/zcubZWj1Qf this season with color analyst Glen Gardner! First free audio broadcast this Friday night at Miami.— Rutgers Baseball (@RutgersBaseball) February 13, 2019
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Prior to the 2018 season I wrote, “Nothing jumps out as a reason to believe Rutgers will be leaps and bounds better than they were in 2017”, but “slightly better defense and a little more from starting pitchers can really make a difference.” And it did as the coaching shake up prior to last season had the desired effect early on. Cundari was able to get a lot more out of the pitching staff, though they did seem to get exposed later in the year. Rutgers at one point was 18-11 before they struggled down the stretch, somewhat surprisingly at the plate even more than on the hill. The offense for no structural reason seemed to struggle in warmer months contrary to what is normally expected, guys simply started slumping at the plate and the pitching staff could not compensate.
Per Litterio, “the game has not changed. We need to focus on playing baseball, not who we are playing.” The 2019 edition of the Scarlet Knights now has had a full year with the Fred Hill complex, not only should that help with fundamentals but it also should help with chemistry. Entering the season having lost Matera and Harris there are no real “superstars” which may add pressure throughout the lineup, though often that seems to have the opposite effect as everyone needs to pull their weight. Though the opening day lineup was established about a week ago, nobody will be blocked from playing time if he produces. Without big time power threats to get runs back in bunches, the margin for error at the dish is razor thin.
The term may be overused throughout college and pro sports, but this is in fact a young team, with only four seniors. All four are starting on opening day and how they lead this group will be key to continuing the program on an upward trajectory. There are some talented young pieces, especially freshmen and sophomores who simply have to be in the lineup right now, so their development is key to this season and the future of the program.
Dust off that cap, break in a new glove, and grab a really good piece of lumber because the 2019 season is upon us!
Season opening series at Miami (FL) includes the following start times: 7:00 pm EST (Friday & Saturday), high noon (Sunday).
The season continues next Friday Feb 22 in New Orleans with a round robin. The first game of the mini-tournament is against Butler at 1:30 pm.
For my recommendations in Miami and all the season’s road trips, review here.