PISCATAWAY, NJ- The Monmouth Hawks were the only team standing in the way of a perfect homestand.
In the previous five games, all at home, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights were only tested once. Outside of a close 6-4 victory against Minnesota, every other game saw Rutgers win by seven runs or more.
But the Hawks, who stood at a middling 12-13 (although 3-0 in MAAC play), were able to successfully test the Scarlet Knights and back them into a corner. After scoring four runs to take a 4-1 lead in the sixth inning, Monmouth clung to a 4-3 lead entering the bottom of the eighth inning, needing only six outs to upset an in-state rival.
Great teams, however, thrive in the face of adversity. And Rutgers would do just that.
The Scarlet Knights not only seized the lead in the eighth, but they blew the game open. When the dust settled, Rutgers had turned a one-run deficit into a 9-4 lead, and the ninth inning was a breeze.
The come-from-behind victory completed a perfect six-game homestand for the Scarlet Knights, and extended their winning streak to seven games.
"It's a good win for our team," manager Steve Owens said. "It's a good confidence builder to come back from a deficit and win a game late at home."
Relief pitcher Kyle Muller earned the start for Rutgers. Compared to the previous openers during the season, Muller's start lasted the longest, at four innings pitched.
The right-hander got into trouble in the top of the first inning, however; after walking the game's first batter and retiring the next two, Monmouth's third baseman Joey Ventresca roped a double down the left-field line, putting two runners in scoring position. But Muller escaped the jam, striking out designated hitter Nick Campana to end the inning. From there, Muller allowed only two more baserunners over the next three innings.
Hawks starter Reed Interdonato pitched three scoreless innings to start the game, but was replaced by Cory Hiltz in the fourth inning. The Scarlet Knights capitalized; designated hitter Nick Cimillo led off with a single, advanced to second on a wild pitch, and scored on a double by Josh Kuroda-Grauer for the first run of the contest.
Nate McLain replaced Muller in the fifth and set the Hawks down in order. But in the sixth inning, Monmouth rallied. Second baseman Casey Caufield and first baseman Robbie Holmes greeted McLain with singles, before James Harmstead hit a ground ball to Rutgers shortstop Danny DiGeorgio. Trying for a force out at third base, DiGeorgio's throw was wide and Caufield scored on the error to tie the game. Joe Mazza entered the game looking to put out the fire, but Ventresca hit a full-count, two-run single up the middle to give Monmouth a 3-1 lead.
The next two batters walked to load the bases, with still nobody out in the inning. However, Mazza induced right fielder Ben Winstead to hit into a double play; although Ventresca scored, Rutgers was able to limit further damage. After the double play, Jayson Hoopes entered and got the final out of the inning.
In the bottom of the sixth, the Scarlet Knights got a pair of runs back. New pitcher Dante Ciaramella walked Cimillo, allowed a single to third baseman Tony Santa Maria, and walked left fielder Evan Sleight to load the bases. First baseman Chris Brito and Kuroda-Grauer each followed with sacrifice flies to cut the deficit to one.
After Jared Bellissimo and Sam Portnoy pitched a scoreless seventh and eighth, respectively, the Rutgers lineup came alive in the bottom of the eighth inning. With Jake Fraher pitching, Sleight drew a leadoff walk, followed by a single by Brito. After the first out, right fielder Richie Schiekofer hit an infield single to load the bases, prompting Monmouth to send in J.D. Greeley. Rutgers countered with pinch hitter Garrett Callaghan, who hit a sacrifice fly after an eight-pitch at-bat to tie the game. The next batter, center fielder Ryan Lasko, gave the Scarlet Knights the lead for good with a two-run double into the left-center field gap.
Rutgers added three more runs in the inning for good measure, all with two outs; after a walk to DiGeorgio, Cimillo followed with an RBI single to drive in Lasko, while advancing to second on the throw home. Matt Choi then replaced Greeley, needing one out to escape, but Santa Maria greeted him with a two-run single that all but put the game out of reach.
Looking to prevent any possibility of a comeback, Owens sent in closer Dale Stanavich in a non-save situation. "Dirty Dale" would slam the door, pitching a one-two-three inning to end the game.
"Today was a tough day to hit and we were able to have a really good inning," Owens said of the game-winning rally. "We put at-bats together and we've been pretty good this year at doing that."
What Does This Mean for Rutgers?
This win was more important to Rutgers than it looks; the team has gotten used to thoroughly dominating their opposition throughout the season, with very few games that headed down to the wire. Although the Scarlet Knights ended up winning by five, the fact that they were down to their final six outs and strung together a game-breaking rally speaks volumes about the team's resilience. They are clearly capable of winning close games and facing adversity.
As mentioned before, true contenders in any sport frequently find themselves in adversity-challenging situations, and still find ways to win. If Rutgers can pull out a win in situations like the one they faced on Tuesday, they could be a truly dangerous force in the nation and not just in the Big Ten.
Next Up for Rutgers
After a perfect homestand, the Scarlet Knights travel to Lincoln for a three-game series against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. First pitch is on Friday at 4:15 PM ET.