PISCATAWAY, NJ- After Tennessee and Miami (both ranked teams) had their long winning streaks end, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights baseball team now had the longest winning streak in the country.
With their 8-4 victory over Penn, Rutgers' winning streak had reached twelve games.
However, that streak would be tested during the weekend as the Scarlet Knights had yet another conference series to tackle. This time, their opponent was the Indiana Hoosiers, who were a far more talented team than their record suggested.
Entering the series, Indiana was 13-18 on the year. But their lineup suggested otherwise. They were third in the Big Ten in runs scored (behind Rutgers and Maryland, respectively) and second in home runs (behind Maryland). Designated hitter Matthew Ellis led the conference in homers with 12, and center fielder Bobby Whalen ranked in the top three in stolen bases with 13 (he would steal three more this weekend). But while their lineup was filled with skilled hitters, their starting rotation was falling short of expectations, and their bullpen was a mess, the latter of which would be a significant factor in this series.
Ultimately, the weekend series that culminated on Easter Sunday would be one for the ages. The Scarlet Knights were pushed to their limits as every game would come down to the wire, with a treasure trove of high-leverage situations. But Rutgers found ways to win all three games, each in dramatic fashion, and proved that they could win in any way imaginable.
April 15: The Series Opener
The pitching matchup for the first game looked like a mismatch. Rutgers sent their ace, Jared Kollar, while Indiana countered with struggling starter John-Biagio Modugno. Kollar was among the Big Ten's leaders in wins, strikeouts, and ERA, while Modugno was suffering through a disappointing season after a strong 2021 campaign.
However, Modugno found his previous year's form and gave Kollar a much smaller margin for error. Although he would only go four innings and earned a no-decision, Modugno didn't allow a run while striking out four and holding Rutgers' potent offense to just two hits, although he walked three batters. He and the Indiana bullpen pitched well enough that Kollar had to settle for a no-decision, despite a solid six inning performance allowing two runs (only one earned) on five hits while striking out five.
Indiana would strike first in the top of the third inning. After getting the first two outs, Kollar allowed a walk to the speedy Whalen. What followed was an uncharacteristic lapse in the Rutgers defense, which led the Big Ten in fielding percentage. Shortstop Phillip Glasser singled to right, and Whalen attempted to move to third. However, shortstop Danny DiGeorgio's throw was off-target, allowing Whalen to score. On top of that, another bad throw allowed Glasser to advance to second. The Scarlet Knights were charged with two throwing errors.
Despite this, third baseman Tony Santa Maria balanced this out with a spectacular, run-saving grab. Ellis hit a rocket towards third, and Santa Maria acrobatically snared the liner to end the inning. Words don't do the play justice, and it needs to be seen to be believed.
Relief pitcher Ty Bothwell replaced Modugno in the fifth inning and quickly got the first two outs. But catcher Nick Cimillo tied the game at one with a monstrous home run down the left-field line, turning around a 3-0 pitch that left Bainton Field in the blink of an eye.
The Hoosiers rallied in the seventh inning. Right fielder Hunter Jessee singled and left fielder Carter Mathison walked to chase Kollar from the game. But Sam Bello was able to limit the damage, allowing only a sacrifice fly. The Scarlet Knights quickly got that run back in the bottom of the inning, as center fielder Ryan Lasko homered to left to tie the game again.
In the top of the eighth, Indiana mounted a serious scoring threat. Whalen led off with a single and Glasser followed with a double, while Ellis was intentionally walked to load the bases. Bello got third baseman Josh Pine to hit into a force play at home, but Jessee followed with what appeared to be a back-breaking single. Glasser scored easily to give Indiana the lead, but Lasko nailed pinch-runner Ethan Vecrumba with a perfect throw to the plate to prevent a second run from scoring. Two batters later, Bello escaped the inning.
"The guys value defense," Rutgers manager Steve Owens said. "They work at it every day, and it's been a big part of our success."
Although the Hoosiers now led 3-2, nobody in the packed Bainton Field crowd seemed worried, as they quickly assumed that the Scarlet Knights would rally back. And sure enough, they did.
New pitcher Grant Holderfield plunked DiGeorgio to start the bottom half. First baseman Chris Brito then hit a playable deep fly ball to center, but Whalen dropped the ball for a back-breaking error. Pinch hitter Mike Nyisztor then laid down a perfect bunt single to load the bases, and second baseman Josh Kuroda-Grauer hit a sacrifice fly to tie the game yet again. After a walk reloaded the bases, Holderfield recorded the second out before left fielder Evan Sleight committed a lefty-lefty crime with a two-run single the other way, giving the Scarlet Knights their first lead of the game, at 5-3.
"He had a great approach on that at-bat and that was the at-bat that counted for him today," Owens said.
Indiana wouldn't stand a chance against dominant closer Dale Stanavich. "Dirty Dale" quickly retired the side to end the game and pick up his eighth save of the season. Bello earned the win, while Holderfield took the loss. The Scarlet Knights extended their winning streak to thirteen games with the win.
April 16: The Middle Matchup
Despite the Hoosiers' pitching woes during the season, the second game would be a tense pitcher's duel. But just like the day before, there would be a dramatic ending.
For Rutgers, Nathan Florence lasted four innings, allowing just two runs on five hits while striking out seven. Garrett French, Sam Portnoy, and Ben Gorski combined to allow only one hit over the last five innings.
However, Florence was initially in line for the loss, as Indiana starter Jack Perkins pitched spectacularly. He went seven strong innings, allowing only one run on three hits while tallying eight strikeouts.
Runs were scarce in the first 7 1/2 innings. The Scarlet Knights struck first against Perkins in the third inning. Nyisztor led off with an infield single before Sleight was plunked and Cimillo walked, loading the bases with one out. But Rutgers only scored once on Santa Maria's RBI fielder's choice, and Perkins got DiGeorgio to fly out to end the threat. Indiana would take the lead in the fifth inning. Whalen, Glasser, and Ellis hit three straight singles to tie the game, ending Florence's day. French took the hill and got the first out but walked Jessee to load the bases. Mathison followed with a go-ahead sacrifice fly, but that would be the Hoosiers' last run of the ballgame.
Perkins was finally removed after throwing a whopping 120 pitches through seven innings. Unfortunately, he would have nothing to show for his excellent pitching effort. With Braydon Tucker pitching, it was deja vu for the Scarlet Knights as they mounted another game-winning rally, all with two outs. DiGeorgio lit the first spark with a single, followed by walks to Brito and Kuroda-Grauer to load the bases. Jordan Sweeney was chosen to pinch-hit and became a hero by lashing a bases-clearing triple into the left-center field gap, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead.
"Somebody different has been stepping up for us all year long. Different guys stepped up today to help us win," Owens said.
Gorski retired the side in the ninth to pick up the save, extend Rutgers' winning streak to fourteen games, and give Sweeney a well-earned Gatorade shower. Portnoy was the winning pitcher for Rutgers.
"It was a great feeling," Sweeney said before being dowsed. "I just try to stay ready all game, be aggressive with a pitch in the zone and make it happen."
April 17: The Easter Finale
If only the title "Easter Epic" weren't taken already. Although the Scarlet Knights had already claimed the series, the bid for a sweep would be the most drama-filled game of them all, complete with a storybook ending. This game is arguably the greatest baseball game Rutgers has played since joining the Big Ten.
In contrast to the previous pitching-dominated games, the final game would be an epic slugfest that saw the Scarlet Knights erase a five-run deficit and earn their first walk-off win of the year.
Justin Sinibaldi toed the slab for Rutgers, while Bradley Brehmer started for Indiana. Both struggled as Sinibaldi lasted only three innings while Brehmer was knocked around for 4 1/3 innings.
Indiana started the scoring right away. Whalen led off the game with a double to left, moved to third on a flyout, and scored on a two-out passed ball to make it 1-0. In the third inning, the Hoosiers took control. After Whalen reached on a fielder's choice, Glasser singled to move him to third and Ellis hit a sacrifice fly to bring him in. Pyne then drove in Glasser with a double before scoring himself on Jessee's RBI single. Sinibaldi would pick off Jessee to end the inning, but it appeared the Hoosiers had all the momentum.
But the Scarlet Knights got all three runs back in the bottom half. Nyisztor led off with an infield single (which was his 200th career hit, all with Rutgers), moved to third on a single by DiGeorgio, and scored on an RBI single by Sleight. After Cimillo hit into a fielder's choice, Brito hit a two-run double to left that put Rutgers right back in the game.
Kyle Muller would escape a fourth inning jam, but the Hoosiers blew the game open in the fifth inning against Joe Mazza. After the first out, Mazza would have struck out Ellis but allowed him to reach via a wild pitch. Pyne then hit a potential double-play ball, but a throwing error by Santa Maria allowed the rally to continue. A walk to Jessee would load the bases. Mazza got the second out on a force play at home, but Carter Mathison then hit a grand slam to right-center field (all four runs unearned) to give Indiana an 8-3 lead. Nate McLain would get the last out of the inning, but the damage was done, and it appeared the Hoosiers had complete control of the game.
However, the Scarlet Knights showed their resilience and got all four runs back in the bottom of the fifth. Lasko singled, DiGeorgio walked to start the inning, and Sleight followed with an RBI single to score Lasko. Cimillo then doubled to drive in DiGeorgio. After a one-out walk to Santa Maria to load the bases, Kuroda-Grauer hit a two-run single to left, cutting Rutgers' deficit to just one run again. Reese Sharp, however, put out the fire before Rutgers could tie it/. To make matters worse, Cimillo appeared to be injured on the play at the plate on Kuroda-Grauer's single and would be replaced by Jason Shockley in the seventh inning.
Indiana added an insurance run in the sixth. Whalen hit a leadoff single and then stole second, forcing McLain out of the game in favor of Jared Bellissimo. Whalen swiped third and then scored on a nubber by Ellis that was scored as a fielder's choice instead of a hit. But Rutgers made it a one-run game again when Brito led off the seventh inning with a home run to left-center.
Sam Portnoy and Ben Gorski combined for scoreless seventh and eighth innings. But in both halves of the ninth inning, the drama escalated to its peak.
Pyne led off the top of the ninth with an infield single. After a walk to Jessee and a fielder's choice for the first out, Samuel Murrison (replacing Mathison in left) walked to load the bases, knocking Gorski out of the game and putting Indiana in prime position to put the game out of reach. But Sam Bello would put out the fire in heart-stopping fashion. He induced second baseman Tyler Doanes to fly out to left, with the fly ball not deep enough for a sacrifice fly. The next batter was Tucker Schank, who pinch-hit for former Rutgers catcher Peter Serruto. Bello got Schank to ground out to squash the threat, keeping it a one-run game for Rutgers as they faced their last three outs.
Tony Santa Maria strode to the plate with his team down to their last two outs at the bottom of the ninth. With a 2-2 count after seven pitches, the Rutgers third baseman hit a dramatic, game-tying home run to left field that sent the Bainton Field crowd into hysterics. It was his eighth big fly of the season, but none bigger than that one.
Now needing two outs to force extra innings, Indiana strangely kept the rattled and exhausted Reese in the game. He had previously earned five losses this season and, despite pitching well on Sunday, had allowed a run in all but two of his previous appearances and was approaching 80 pitches in the game. Rutgers immediately capitalized on this decision.
Reese got the second out but now needed to get Jordan Sweeney out to force extras. Somehow, Sweeney would outdo his heroics from the previous game. With a full count, the Rutgers DH smashed a historic long drive that sailed over the left-field fence, ending the game and setting off a wild celebration on the field and in the stands. For the second straight game, Sweeney was showered in Gatorade, and for the fifteen straight game, Rutgers had emerged victorious. It was the signature win for a team that had become the first in the Big Ten to win their 30th game of the year.
Bello earned his third win of the year for Rutgers and his second of the series.
What Does This Mean for Rutgers?
With the winning streak at fifteen games and the Scarlet Knights' flair for the dramatic in the Indiana series, there's not much to describe the team other than unbeatable. Rutgers has won in nearly every fashion, from blowouts to close games, comebacks, walk-offs, and everything in between. Best of all, they are gaining legitimate attention. The seats at Bainton Field are quickly filling up, TJ Hitchings of Barstool Sports is spreading the news of the team's success on Twitter, and other Rutgers athletes such as Ron Harper Jr. celebrated Sunday's incredible victory.
As of Sunday, Rutgers is first in the Big Ten in conference record (11-1) and overall record (30-6), while their fifteen-game winning streak is the longest in the nation. Considering all of this, it is very likely that the Scarlet Knights will be ranked even higher and on more prestigious polls.
Next Up for Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights complete their six-game homestand against the Iona Gaels. First pitch is at Bainton Field on Tuesday at 3:00 PM.