It was March 10, 2020 when Rutgers picked up a 5-2 victory over Monmouth at Bainton Field in Piscataway.
This victory improved the Scarlet Knights to 6-9 on the season and that is where it would all end as the pandemic forced the season to be cut short. Nearly one full year later, Rutgers is set to play their season-opener against Indiana at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The first weekend will see Rutgers play two games against both the Hoosiers and Minnesota.
The Big Ten released their conference only baseball schedule that will run through the weekend of May 28. It will feature 44 total games spread out over 13 straight weekends. This includes matchups against Maryland and Ohio State.
“We’re playing 44 conference games and that’s never been done before,” head coach Steve Owens said. “Every single game has the same exact meaning. We’re going to have to play four-game weekends five times. That’s a challenge because we need depth.”
The Scarlet Knights will waste no time in taking on some of the top competition in the conference. With a gauntlet schedule such as this, it is important to have depth all over the field.
This begins in the pitching rotation, which is headlined by redshirt junior Harry Rutkowski. Prior to the 2020 season, the left-hander was projected to go in the top-10 rounds of the MLB First-Year Player Draft. He is expected to start on Friday but Owens has not made an official announcement just yet.
“Having Harry back is a big bonus,” Owens said. “He has thrown well, he’s obviously a very good pitcher. We’re fortunate to have him back and I’m excited to have him pitch a full season for us.”
After Rutkowski, Rutgers will have experience in the starting rotation. Brent Teller and Ben Wereski will be starters for the Scarlet Knights. They are both grad transfer who have a lot of experience on the mound. Owens has made it a point to take advantage of the extra time to prepare and stretch out the starters.
“We’ve developed six or seven, maybe even eight, guys who have started throughout our preseason prep,” Owens said. “We’ve been able to go longer with our pitchers. When we start a normal year, a pitcher might only be able to go five innings. We already have those guys to six or seven. I think the starting pitchers’ pitch count should be higher than a normal, traditional start to a season.”
Jayson Hoopes, a redshirt freshman transfer from Virginia, will also be in the mix. Tevin Murray, Nate McLain, Justin Sinibaldi, and Ben Gorski are the others who have been stretched out to this point.
Garrett French is coming off Tommy John surgery and is expected to be a bullpen piece when healthy. French has begun throwing off a mound in bullpen settings. He will be progressed into live action before his return. Owens expects to have French back in the mix in three or four weeks.
The Scarlet Knights have struggled offensively over the last few seasons. In 2020, Rutgers hit .266 as a team over the shortened 15-game season. This will have to improve drastically if the Scarlet Knights want to climb up the Big Ten standings.
“We have to improve our offensive productivity, which has not been a strength of our program for a few years,” Owens said. ““We have to change that and become a team that can score some runs.”
The Scarlet Knights have been working out Chris Brito at third base. Last season, he led Rutgers with three home runs and 11 RBI’s. With Brito moving to third, this allows Jordan Sweeney to take over first base full time.
“It lengthens the lineup for us,” Owens said. “Sweeney’s emergence at first base has allowed us to move another big hitter to the other corner. It gives us an option to potentially put a different person at DH and try to get some of our better hitters in the lineup more often.”
Richie Schiekofer is another player that the Scarlet Knights are happy to have back. In 2020, Schiekofer hit .375 with 11 RBI’s and a .478 OBP. Arguably the best player for Rutgers coming into the season, Schiekofer will continue to be a force at the top of the lineup and a leader in the outfield.
Evan Slate, another Virginia transfers, has been working out in left field. Josh Rodriguez and Mike Nyisztor will also be in the mix and have a chance to get on the field often. This is the case for all outfielders on the roster.
“There’s a possibility for three to be playing, one could be DH’ing, and one could come in late for defense,” Owens said. “We’re going to be utilizing these guys a lot. There’s a realistic chance that all six outfielders play a part in each game.”
This includes Ryan Lasko, a freshman outfielder from Jackson who has been getting some preseason attention. Lasko was named the D1 Baseball Preseason Freshman of the Year in the Big Ten.
“He is a very complete player,” Owens said. “Even though he’s young and going to make some mistakes. He’s a good outfielder with a very good arm that can hit and steal bases.”
When the season was halted last year, the Scarlet Knights were 6-9 and struggling offensively. In 2021, Rutgers will look to keep getting better in the Big Ten.
“Our goal is to keep improving,” Owens said. “To be a very solid team. I think we’re going to pitch at a high level. If we could finish in the top four or five in our conference, that would be a great accomplishment.”