Rutgers, Rutgers baseball
(Photo by Ben Solomon/Rutgers Athletics)

Rutgers baseball returns to Piscataway in style

PISCATAWAY, NJ- The Rutgers Scarlet Knights baseball team played 21 of their first 22 games on the road. Excluding the one home game Rutgers won, the team went an outstanding 15-6.

Even better for the Scarlet Knights is that most of their remaining schedule will be at Bainton Field in Piscataway.

"We're excited to be in our own beds, have our own routines, and simply walk down campus to play a game instead of having to go on a bus or a plane," manager Steve Owens said. "Having people come here is an advantage. It always is. We're looking forward to a nice homestand this whole weekend and next Tuesday."

Indeed, the Scarlet Knights have begun a six-game homestand after their 11-game road trip. Their first opponent would be an in-state rival in the NJIT Highlanders.

Rutgers had managed to build momentum from their previous series against Penn State, where they took two of three in Happy Valley. Coupled with two days of well-earned rest and a return to friendly faces, the Scarlet Knights picked up right where they left off.

The lineup relentlessly mashed the ball yet again to complement a dominant performance from the bullpen. The Scarlet Knights dominated the Highlanders in a true team effort, 11-1.

"Justin (Sinibaldi) got us off to a good start and then Kyle Muller was good. He gave us a little length," Owens said.

Instead of using a starting pitcher for Tuesday's game, Owens decided to roll the dice and play a "bullpen game", a practice that has become commonplace in baseball, especially in the Major Leagues. Justin Sinibaldi would be the "opener" for the Scarlet Knights.

The sophomore southpaw worked in and out of trouble in the first inning. NJIT shortstop David Marcano singled on the game's second pitch. Although Sinibaldi recorded the next two outs, Marcano proceeded to steal second, and right fielder Paul Franzoni walked to put two runners on with one in scoring position. Sinibaldi ended the threat quickly as he struck out designated hitter Cole Fleming to escape the jam.

Rutgers quickly went down in order, but Sinibaldi would take care of business even quicker in the second inning. He would strike out first baseman Nick Hussey, catcher Luke Longo, and second baseman Brett Helmcamp in order. The Scarlet Knights' "opener" certainly did their job; five out of Sinibaldi's six outs were strikeouts.

Meanwhile, the bats awakened in the bottom of the inning. Third baseman Tony Santa Maria and first baseman Chris Brito each blasted solo shots off of NJIT starter Drew Standen, whose day was finished after the inning ended.

Kyle Muller would replace Sinibaldi in the third. The Highlanders moved a runner into scoring position as third baseman Jared Donnelly singled and moved to second on a wild pitch. But Muller got out of the pickle by striking out left fielder Julio Marcano and getting center fielder Albert Choi to pop out.

Muller would earn the win by tossing three scoreless innings, allowing only two hits and one walk while striking out four. His last inning, in particular, featured a key defensive play. With Julio Marcano batting, David Marcano tried to steal second base. But backup catcher Andy Axelson fired a perfect throw to second baseman Josh Kuroda-Grauer, who slapped the tag for the final out of the inning. Regular catcher Nick Cimillo was penciled in as the designated hitter, which gave Axelson a chance to shine behind the dish.

The Scarlet Knights would blow the game open over the next two innings. In the fifth inning against Tyler Cerone, Brito started a rally with a one-out single. Axelson hit into a fielder's choice for the second out, but he would move to third on a double by red-hot center fielder Ryan Lasko. Right fielder Richie Schiekofer then hit a routine ground ball to the right side, but first baseman Nick Hussey booted it, allowing both runners to score on the error. Cimillo, who earned a well-earned breather from his catching duties, added another highlight to his excellent season at the plate by ripping a double to drive in Schiekofer all the way from first. All three runs in the inning were unearned.

After Ben Gorski squashed another NJIT scoring threat in the top of the sixth, Rutgers added three more runs in the bottom half against Alex DiBona. Shortstop Danny DiGeorgio was hit by a pitch, and he quickly made the Highlanders pay. He swiped second and third base in succession and scored on Santa Maria's infield single. Suddenly, DiBona's command slipped away as he would be charged with a throwing error on a failed pickoff throw that allowed Santa Maria to move to second. After hitting Brito for his second HBP of the inning, DiBona was replaced by Jake Fullerton. Axelson greeted the new pitcher with a double to drive in Santa Maria, and Brito would score on a groundout by Lasko to make it 8-0 Rutgers.

NJIT finally broke up the shutout against Jayson Hoopes in the seventh. After a single by Longo and a walk by Helmcamp, Hoopes got the first out before allowing an RBI single to David Marcano. Longo scored on the play, but Axelson nailed pinch-runner Michael Doyle with a perfect throw to third for the second out. After Hoopes walked the next batter, Nate McLain entered the game and struck out Choi to strand the runners.

Fullerton would completely lose control in the bottom of the inning, and Rutgers took advantage with two more runs. Cimillo reached on an infield single before being pinch-ran for by Cameron Love, who advanced to second on a wild pitch. Fullerton walked the next three batters, but not before uncorking another wild pitch that allowed Love to score. After the last walk loaded the bases, Joey Craska took over and only allowed an RBI groundout to pinch-hitter Garrett Callaghan to limit the damage.

Rutgers scored one last run in the eighth inning. Pinch-hitter Jordan Sweeney reached on a two-base error, advanced to third on a single by Mike Nyisztor, and scored on a wild pitch for an unearned run. Meanwhile, McLain continued to pin down the Highlanders, pitching the last 2 1/3 innings while striking out three.

What Does This Mean for Rutgers?

NJIT may not be the strongest opponent, but the Scarlet Knights firmly continued the momentum they built from the Penn State series. The team excelled in every area of the game; from lockdown pitching, rock-solid defense, and an unrelenting offensive attack, Rutgers looked like a complete team.

But there is no time to let the foot off the gas. Although they are the home team in each one, the Scarlet Knights will play five more games over seven days. However, from the way the team is playing, a sweep of the homestand is undoubtedly possible.

Next Up for Rutgers

The Scarlet Knights get right back to work on Wednesday as they host another in-state rival in the Saint Peter's Peacocks (yes, the same Saint Peter's that took the nation by storm in March Madness). First pitch is at Bainton Field at 3:00 PM.

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