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Rutgers Baseball wins thriller, drops series at USC Upstate

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Big inning dooms RU in rubber match after two one-run games Saturday.

Gerace started strong for the Knights Saturday.
David Anderson

Rutgers baseball travelled to Spartanburg, SC for a three game set with USC Upstate. The Scarlet Knights swept the Spartans two years ago, but the USC Upstate program has grown tremendously and the school is now a member of the Big South conference. After a rainout Friday, the teams played two games as part of a Saturday doubleheader that did not begin until 2 pm due to rain and heavy fog.

Saturday (Game 1): USC Upstate 1, Rutgers 0

The weather was wet and foggy with temperatures in the mid-40s, so from the start it seemed like one run might be enough for either club. The conditions reduced the chances of bad hops on groundballs and balls hit to the outfield were dying in the grass, allowing outfielders to play very shallow. Throwing the wet ball was challenging, so both teams treated every runner on with no out situation and any one out situation with 1st and 2nd as a bunting one. It’s difficult to say if having played 11 of their first 12 games at home gave Upstate any advantage in this scenario.

Rutgers starter Harry Rutkowski pitched well, but was matched by Jordan Marks on the other side. Marks faced trouble in the 2nd as RU got runners to second and third with one out after a Kevin Welsh sacrifice. Carmen Sclafani struck out looking and David Soto grounded out to end the threat. Rutgers was gifted another chance in the third aided by two Spartan errors, but again failed to score.

Rutkowski pitched around a leadoff double in the 4th and it looked the RU offense was about to break through in the 5th. Victor Valderrama singled with one out and stole second when Kevin Blum struck out. Mike Nyisztor then singled through the left side, but Valderrama did not run immediately for fear of running into the 3rd out of the inning. Despite Nyisztor’s power, the left fielder was playing shallow and even Valderrama’s plus speed could not get him home. Chris Brito grounded out to third to end the inning.

In the bottom of the 6th, Rutkowski was forced to pitch around another leadoff double by Stone Stephenson. This time he could not as a one out single by Andres Kim plated the only run of the game. Rutkowski deserved better as he finished with a line of 5.2 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 3 BB, and 8 SO. The defense did not make any errors behind him, but at least two times they could not turn a double play that would have dramatically reduced his pitch count.

Rutgers got Luke Bowerbank to second in the 7th, but could not move him. After that, Upstate went to strikeout machine Will Wheeler who continued his torrid pace, registering four strikeouts in two innings.

Decisive stat: Eight runners stranded. This number doesn’t even do it justice because many of those runners were in scoring position, some with less than two outs. Rutgers just could not come through with a big hit or even productive outs to plate anyone.

Notable: Coach Joe Litterio’s club only registered four hits, but had baserunners all over the place in the early innings with walks and errors. Tommy Genuario and Serafino Brito threw scoreless innings of relief.

Saturday (Game 2): Rutgers 8, USC Upstate 7

Rutgers returned for the second game of the double header quite focused with about 35 minutes to think it over. The Scarlet Knights opened up a 5-0 lead in the 4th and starter Kyle Gerace had retired the side in order each of the first three innings. A key hit came from Kevin Welsh to drive in two runs and Valderrama added a sac fly.

Momentum shifted completely with a simple hit by pitch in the bottom of the 4th. From there the Spartans added two runs in the 4th, two more in the 5th, and tied the game in the 6th. Rutgers temporarily regained the lead with one in the 7th on a Welsh sac fly, but Upstate answered with another in the bottom half to tie the game at 6, and then tacked on another in the 8th to take a 7-6 lead with an unearned run off Serafino Brito.

Upstate elected not to use Wheeler to protect the one run lead in the 9th after he pitched two innings in the opener. Rutgers was all over Sean Hupp as Nyisztor led off with a single and advanced to second on a wild pitch. Chris Brito ripped the ball through the left side to score Nyisztor. Carmen Sclafani bunted Brito to second setting up a Tyler McNamara single for the lead run as Brito came home.

Serafino Brito stayed on for a 1-2-3 9th to nail down the victory.

Decisive stat: Five errors. The field conditions were a challenge and USC Upstate had four of their own. That being said cleaner play probably could have had this one wrapped up earlier and not required Genuario and Serafino Brito to pitch for a second time on the day, making them unavailable for Sunday’s rubber match.

Notable: Nyisztor and Tim Dezzi each had two hits. Chris Brito scored twice and Welsh added three RBI.

Sunday: USC Upstate 13, Rutgers 4

Rutgers was on the board first behind a Kevin Welsh hit to provide starter Tevin Murray a run before he took the hill. Murray labored around trouble in the bottom half when a routine double play toss by Welsh was dropped by Soto. Tevin struck out the next two hitters but was quickly back on the field after Rutgers hitters went down 1-2-3 on a total of 5 pitches.

In the second USC Upstate put up three runs on just two hits, but Murray got Kim to end the inning and RU trailing just 3-1 with plenty of time left in the game. After another 1-2-3 in the top of the 3rd, Murray did not come out for the 3rd and was replaced by Eric Reardon.

The 3rd turned into the inning from hell as Upstate put up seven runs on six hits (four for extra bases) off lefties Reardon and Jared Bellissimo. The key sequence came after a two- run single up the middle by the 7th hitter brought up Spartan 8th hitter Robby McGaha. McGaha hit a ball to the left centerfield gap that was an easy double and continued toward third to draw a throw allowing the runner to score all the way from first. Rather than being thrown out, Soto’s throw skipped past Sclafani. McGaha then attempted to score and Reardon backing up the play’s throw was too late. After that, this game was never really in doubt.

Rutgers started to get the bats going after Spartan starter Jacob Thiessen took a line drive off the foot, but it was too little, too late.

Decisive stat: Three errors. Rutgers mostly dodged unearned runs Saturday as both teams had miscues, but Sunday the Spartans were clean while RU was not. The first error didn’t lead to a run, but chased Murray earlier than Litterio would have liked. The others were brutal. French’s was a grounder after he replaced Sclafani at the hot corner. With runners at first and second, Garrett could have tagged the man who was a few feet away from him, thrown to second, or thrown to first. He half attempted to tag the runner and never reset his feet properly, throwing the ball away to first, allowing a run to score. This play was unfortunate because otherwise French showed range and an accurate throwing arm.

Notable: Dezzi, McNamara, and Welsh each had two hits. Steven Acosta had two scoreless innings out of the bullpen. Freshman catcher Andy Axelson notched his first collegiate hit and came around to score on Adam Holland’s sacrifice fly, Holland’s first career RBI.

Series Takeaway(s): 1. Upstate Second Baseman Andres Kim is a really good player. While watching the game Sunday, I thought RU might explore the idea of walking him. The Scarlet Knights have little margin for error, so it will be interesting to see how they handle sluggers from other clubs the rest of the way. 2. Victor Valderrama made some freshman mistakes, but really flashed. He makes good contact, has tremendous speed, and a good throwing arm. As with every baseball player it’s a lifelong learning process that he and the rest of his classmates need to embrace, but Victor has a lot of potential. 3. The Scarlet Knights best position for sure is the catcher spot. Tyler McNamara has taken a huge step from a year ago and Peter Serruto is tremendously talented. If Serruto played any other position outside of maybe first base, he’d probably be in the lineup every day. Both players were excellent defensively in less than desirable conditions plus true freshman Axelson had a clean base hit in a pinch hitting appearance.

After the finale, Coach Litterio talked about his biggest takeaway from this series being “we have to get better in all areas.” “We can’t give teams five outs in an inning.” Litterio mentioned the leadership of Tyler McNamara and Kevin Welsh as a pleasant surprise, “When you have 17 freshmen, it’s tough.” More from my discussion with Coach later in the week.

B1G League Chew: In a 25 hour period, three full games were played.

Next up

Rutgers hopes to finally get the home opener on Wednesday against Monmouth at 3 pm. The weather is expected to be partly cloudy with a high of 52.

RU will return to the Sunshine State for three games at Florida Gulf Coast in Ft. Myers, March 15-17 to begin their annual spring break trip.