LINCOLN, NEB- The Rutgers Scarlet Knights baseball team is on a rampage.
After a perfect 6-0 homestand in Piscataway, the Scarlet Knights rode a seven-game winning streak into Lincoln. Rutgers had risen to first overall in the Big Ten conference with solid pitching and powerful bats.
Speaking of the Big Ten, the next series was a three-game set against a conference opponent. Although the Nebraska Cornhuskers had a 12-15 overall record entering the series, they were the defending Big Ten champions, the preseason favorites, and had a 4-2 conference record, which included a three-game sweep of Ohio State.
This wouldn't be an easy series for the Scarlet Knights; outside of one major exception, the series would be very competitive between both teams. But in the end, Rutgers left the midwest with their winning streak reaching double digits.
April 8: The Series Opener
In the opening game, ace Jared Kollar would take the hill for Rutgers, while Shay Schanaman would be opposing him. Kollar would be staked with a lead before throwing his first pitch. Center fielder Ryan Lasko hit the game's fourth pitch over the right-field fence to give the Scarlet Knights a 1-0 lead.
However, Kollar uncharacteristically struggled with his command in the bottom of the frame. Having issued five walks this season, the Rutgers ace allowed four free passes during the inning. After the first two batters walked, Kollar induced a flyout before uncorking a wild pitch. Nebraska shortstop Brice Matthews, who moved to third on the flyout, raced home on the wild pitch to tie the game. The following two batters were walked to load the bases, and the Cornhuskers looked primed to put a crooked number on the board. But Kollar would finally find his rhythm as he got a popout and groundout to escape the inning.
Kollar settled into a groove and retired 13 straight batters, five via strikeout. Meanwhile, the Rutgers lineup went to work. In the third inning, left fielder Mike Nyisztor was hit by a pitch, and he advanced to third on a single by right fielder Richie Schiekofer before scoring on catcher Nick Cimillo's RBI single. Cimillo struck again in the fifth with Lasko on first after a hit-by-pitch. The red-hot catcher blasted a two-run home run to make it 4-1.
Nebraska got one of those runs back in the bottom half. Matthews singled with two outs before scoring on left fielder Cam Chick's triple to cut the deficit to 4-2. But the Scarlet Knights added insurance in the sixth inning. First baseman Chris Brito doubled with one out. After Schanaman got the second out, Nyisztor drove in Brito with a double before Lasko hit his second homer of the game, this one a two-run shot, that padded Rutgers' lead to 7-2.
After Kollar earned a quality start with a scoreless sixth, Sam Bello replaced him and pitched a scoreless seventh and eighth. However, the Cornhuskers leaped back into the game in the bottom of the ninth. After a pair of singles, closer Dale Stanavich entered the game, needing only two outs to seal the win. But he hit the first batter he faced to load the bases. After the second out, catcher Griffin Everitt ripped a bases-clearing double, suddenly making it 7-5 and bringing the tying run to the plate. Stanavich squashed the threat as he struck out right fielder Garrett Anglim to end the game and give the Scarlet Knights their eighth consecutive win.
Lasko and Cimillo were the big boppers for Rutgers, as they each had multi-hit games and three RBIs.
April 9: The Middle Game
Rutgers righty Nathan Florence took on Nebraska's Emmitt Olson in what would become another tense affair.
The Scarlet Knights raced to a 3-0 lead in the top of the second inning. Tony Santa Maria, playing second base instead of his usual third base, reached on Matthews's error, and Brito, taking his place at third, followed with a double. Left fielder Evan Sleight then knocked in Santa Maria with an RBI groundout. After Nyisztor was plunked, first baseman Jordan Sweeney hit an RBI single to score Brito. One out later, Lasko singled to drive in Nyisztor. Two of Rutgers' three runs were unearned due to the rally-sparking error.
The score would remain that way until the seventh inning as Olson settled in and wouldn't allow another hit in a strong 6 2/3 innings of work. Meanwhile, Florence pitched a brilliant five innings, allowing only one hit and one walk while striking out seven. Ben Gorski would replace Florence after a leadoff walk in the sixth and pitched a clean inning.
However, the bottom of the seventh inning was filled with controversy. With Gorski still pitching, Everitt drew a leadoff walk and designated hitter Nick Wimmers hit a one-out single. Gorski then recorded the second out, but first baseman Colby Gomes hit a deep fly ball that hit off the left-field wall. Despite television replays showing the ball not going over the wall, umpires ruled Gomes's fly ball a three-run home run, dramatically tying the game. Manager Steve Owens' protests were to no avail, as he was ejected from the game.
After Garrett French ended the seventh with the game still tied, the Scarlet Knights quickly responded against reliever Braxton Bragg. Cimillo was hit by a pitch to lead off the eighth, and Santa Maria hit a no-doubt, go-ahead two-run bomb to left, giving Rutgers a 5-3 lead and completely silencing the home crowd outside of the visitors' dugout's eruption.
But French ran into trouble in the bottom half. After a leadoff single to Chick and a flyout, Everitt hit a double to center. However, Chick was thrown out at home, thanks to a brilliant relay from Lasko and a perfect throw from shortstop Danny DiGeorgio. However, a single by Anglim prompted another appearance for Stanavich, this time in a save situation. "Dirty Dale" got into further trouble with back-to-back walks, the second of which forced home a run to make it 5-4. With the bases loaded, Gomes would get another chance to be a hero after his dramatic three-run "homer" in the previous inning. But Stanavich buckled down and struck him out to end the inning.
Nebraska threatened one last time in the ninth. Stanavich quickly retired the first two batters, but Chick singled and moved to second on a wild pitch, putting the tying run in scoring position. Third baseman Matt Anderson then walked on four pitches, putting the winning run on base. This also set up a force play, and Everitt hit a harmless ground ball to DiGeorgio, who tossed to Santa Maria at second to end the game. The Scarlet Knights had won the series, and the winning streak swelled to nine games.
"That (game) just shows our resilience and the trust in the guys in front of us, the guys behind us and the guys coming out of the bullpen," Santa Maria said. "We know that if we get a lead, that we're going to keep it. If it comes down to those final outs, we have all those guys in the infield and outfield that we can trust."
April 10: The Series Finale
With the series already won, the drama in the first two games suddenly turned into comic relief, as the Cornhuskers were shown the full wrath of the Scarlet Knights' lineup.
On the pitching side, reliever and spot starter Justin Sinibaldi went 5 1/3 strong innings, allowing only two hits and one run while striking out three. Sam Portnoy, Kyle Muller, and Joe Mazza combined for the last 3.2 innings without allowing a single hit.
The Scarlet Knights scored right away against starter Dawson McCarville. Lasko drew a leadoff walk and Sleight ripped a two-run homer to right for an early 2-0 lead. In the fourth inning, Lasko hit his third homer of the series, a solo shot off Jackson Brockett, to make it 3-0 Rutgers. Nebraska scored their only run in the bottom of the fourth when Chick hit a leadoff double, advanced to third on a groundout and scored on Everitt's sacrifice fly.
Nebraska threatened in the sixth when Matthews walked and Chick was hit by a pitch, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate. Portnoy then replaced Sinibaldi and put out the fire, striking out Anderson and getting Everitt to fly out.
In the seventh inning, the game turned into a laugher as Rutgers exploded for ten runs. Lasko hit a one-out single off Tyler Martin, moved to third on a single by Sleight, and scored on a single by Cimillo. After Santa Maria was hit to load the bases, DiGeorgio hit a towering grand slam to dead center field. In the blink of an eye, Rutgers led 8-1 and the rout was officially underway.
After the second out, Schiekofer doubled to knock Martin out of the game, but new pitcher C.J. Hood wouldn't get a single out. Brito greeted him with a two-run homer to center, and three batters later, he gave up a two-run double to Sleight. After a walk, Hood was mercifully pulled for Will Walsh, who allowed the inning's final run on an RBI single to Santa Maria.
After Brito hit an RBI single in the eighth inning, Rutgers scored five more runs in the ninth, all unearned. Backup catcher Jason Shockley reached on a throwing error. After a walk and hit-by-pitch loaded the bases, Schiekofer drove in two with a double before Brito's three-run home run concluded the scoring at 19-1.
When the dust settled, Rutgers handed Nebraska their most lopsided loss at home since 1992. Lasko, Sleight, DiGeorgio, and Brito had three hits, with the latter three having four RBIs or more. Brito led the way with six RBI and a pair of home runs. The four players combined for five big flies as Rutgers completed their second sweep of a conference opponent this season.
"I'm really happy with the team's effort," Owens said. "We're going to go back home for a few weeks and we're excited."
What Does This Mean for Rutgers?
For the lack of a better term, the Scarlet Knights look unstoppable. Even when they don't dominate their opponent as they did on Sunday, they have consistently come through with timely hits and lockdown pitching in high-leverage situations. The ten-game winning streak has highlighted each of the team's strengths this season.
As of Sunday, the Scarlet Knights not only have the best conference record at 8-1, but they have the best overall record in the Big Ten, at 25-6. In terms of total record, they are a half-game ahead of Maryland, who are 25-7 after a loss on Sunday.
Next Up for Rutgers
After the road sweep of Nebraska, the Scarlet Knights return home to Piscataway for another six-game homestand. Their first opponent is the Lafayette Leopards. First pitch is at Bainton Field on Tuesday at 3:00 PM.