UNIVERSITY PARK, PA- The end of the grueling road games was in sight for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights baseball team.
However, a new challenge confronted the team; conference play.
A combined stretch of 21 road games (only interrupted by one home game) to start the season would conclude with the first series against a Big Ten opponent. That opponent would be the Penn State Nittany Lions, who were below .500 at 7-11, but no conference opponent should be taken lightly.
There was a change made to the series, however. The three-game set would be played across three days, spanning the weekend. However, due to inclement weather expected on Sunday, there would be a doubleheader on Friday, with the rubber match on Saturday.
This would be a double-edged sword for Rutgers; on the one hand, the already exhausted Scarlet Knights now had to deal with two games in one day, further lowering their energy. But on the other hand, the team now has an extra day of rest before their next game.
In the end, the Scarlet Knights left Happy Valley with a series win. The doubleheader on Friday would feature come-from-behind wins from each team, and the rubber match would feature a relentless display of offense from Rutgers.
March 25: The Doubleheader
The Scarlet Knights gave starter Jared Kollar a lead to work with before he threw a single pitch. The game's first batter, Ryan Lasko, manufactured a run in the top of the first. He led off the game with a single against Nittany Lion starter Travis Luensmann, stole second, moved to third on a wild pitch, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Nick Cimillo.
But the Nittany Lions immediately got that run back, as Billy Gerlott, Penn State's first batter, hit a triple on Kollar's first pitch. Johnny Piacentino followed with an RBI single to even the game at one.
Penn State then appeared to take control of the game in the third inning. Derek Cease led off with a walk, moved to second on a groundout, advanced to third on a single by Piacentino, and scored on Matt Wood's sacrifice fly to give the Nittany Lions a 2-1 lead. That lead would grow to 4-1 on the next pitch, as Josh Spiegel hit a two-run home run.
However, the Scarlet Knights quickly showed their resilience. With one out in the fourth inning, Chris Brito walked and Richie Schiekofer singled to knock Luensmann out of the game. Tyler Shingledecker took over and walked Tony Santa Maria to load the bases before Jordan Sweeney singled to drive in Brito. Rutgers would strand the bases loaded as Shingledecker struck out the next two batters.
Rutgers made up for that despite wasting the bases-loaded opportunity with a decisive rally in the fifth. After the first out, Evan Sleight homered to cut the deficit to one. Shingledecker then gave up a single to Cimillo before getting the second out. Schiekofer singled and Santa Maria ripped a go-ahead two-run double to put Rutgers on top, 5-4. Jaden Henline replaced Shingledecker and struck out Sweeney to end the inning, but the damage was done.
The Scarlet Knights scored an insurance run in the seventh. Sleight reached on a fielding error and moved to third on a single by Cimillo before Brito's double-play ground ball drove him in.
Kollar shook off the rough third inning and allowed only one more hit before turning the ball over to the bullpen. Sam Bello allowed only two baserunners in two scoreless innings, and closer Dale Stanavich extinguished a potential rally in the bottom of the ninth to earn the save. Kollar would earn his fourth win of the year in the 6-4 Rutgers victory.
In the first inning of the second game, the Scarlet Knights scored four runs off Penn State starter Tommy Molsky. Lasko started the game with a walk, moved to second on a wild pitch, advanced to third on a single by Danny DiGeorgio, and crossed home plate on an RBI single by Sleight. Both runners moved into scoring position on a wild pitch, and Cimillo hit a two-run double to make it 3-0 Rutgers before Molsky even got the first out. Cimillo would score on Santa Maria's RBI single to push the lead to 4-0.
However, this game would be a role reversal, as Penn State would storm back. Jay Harry homered in the second off Rutgers starter Ben Gorski to put Penn State on the board. In the third inning, Gerlott drew a leadoff walk and Wood hit a triple to bring him in and knock Gorski out of the game. Spiegel greeted Scarlet Knight reliever Justin Sinibaldi with a triple of his own, making it a one-run game with the tying run just 90 feet away. Sinibaldi maintained Rutgers' lead as Spiegel was thrown out at home by Brito on a fielder's choice.
Rutgers got a run back in the fourth. Garrett Callaghan drew a one-out walk and Josh Kuroda-Grauer's single moved him to second. Jordan Morales replaced Molsky and got the second out on a fielder's choice, but DiGeorgio singled to drive in Callaghan. Kyle Muller surrendered the lead in the fifth, as Spiegel singled and Harry hit his second home run tying it up at 5.
The Scarlet Knights struck back against Steven Miller in the top of the sixth. Santa Maria greeted him with a double and eventually scored on a wild pitch to put Rutgers in front, 6-5. But Jayson Hoopes was also unable to keep the lead; after giving up a single to CJ Pittaro and a double to Gerlott, Piacentino and Wood hit back-to-back sacrifice flies to give Penn State their first lead of the game and one they wouldn't relinquish.
The Nittany Lions added an insurance run in the eighth inning on another sacrifice fly by Wood. Meanwhile, Rutgers squandered chances to tie the game in the seventh and eighth (including a bases-loaded opportunity in the seventh) and were retired in order in the ninth as Penn State forced a doubleheader split.
March 26: The Rubber Match
With comebacks being the story of Friday's doubleheader, the key to the series finale was to build a sizeable lead. That would be precisely what the Scarlet Knights did: they built an 11-0 lead en route to a 20-6 slaughter to take the series.
Nittany Lions starter Chase Renner lasted only one inning, as the Scarlet Knights scored in the top of the first for the third straight game. Lasko led off the game with a double and moved to third on Cimillo's single. Cimillo advanced to second on a wild pitch, and both runners scored on Sleight's two-run single. Sleight eventually scored on a double by Callaghan to make it 3-0 Rutgers.
Justin Morales replaced Renner, but he also lasted only one inning. Lasko hit a solo shot with one out to increase the lead to 4-0. Cimillo then doubled, advanced to third on an error, and scored on DiGeorgio's RBI single as the lead swelled to 5-0.
Although Rutgers did not score in the third, their lead grew further in the fourth. Ryan Partridge was greeted with a single by Cimillo, who moved to third on DiGeorgio's double. Santa Maria then knocked in both runners to make it 7-0.
In the fifth, Seneca Gregory was Penn State's next victim to Rutgers' bats. Three straight singles, the last by Schiekofer, would drive in Sweeney. After two outs, the Scarlet Knights loaded the bases before Schiekofer scored on a wild pitch. Santa Maria then beat out a ground ball to drive in Sleight from third. DiGeorgio then beat the throw from first to score. Rutgers now led 11-0, and the game appeared to be a rout.
Suddenly, Penn State clawed back against Nathan Florence, who had thrown four scoreless frames. A two-run single by Pittaro, a two-run triple by Piacentino, and an RBI single by Wood cut the Nittany Lions' deficit to 11-5 in the fifth inning. They scored again in the next inning off reliever Garrett French, as an RBI groundout by Pittaro made it an 11-6 ballgame.
But French wouldn't allow anything else, and Rutgers turned the game into a rout again. Cimillo hit an infield single in the eighth inning with the bases loaded to push the lead to six. The Scarlet Knights blasted Penn State's doors off with eight runs in the ninth. Sweeney walked with the bases loaded to drive in a run, while Lasko's double and Schiekofer's single scored two runs each. Sleight drove in Schiekofer with a single, advanced to second on a wild pitch, and scored on DiGeorgio's triple. Santa Maria finally concluded the scoring by driving in DiGeorgio with a single.
In the end, Rutgers set program records for hits (25) and runs scored (20) against a conference opponent. Lasko and Cimillo had four hits each, while DiGeorgio and Santa Maria each had five. Santa Maria had four RBIs as well, while Lasko, Schiekofer, and Sleight each had three.
What Does This Mean for Rutgers?
After a somewhat down couple of games for the offense against Nebraska-Omaha and Rider, the lineup has heated right back up again. In particular, center fielder and leadoff hitter Ryan Lasko was impossible for the Nittany Lions to get out. He finished the series 9-for-12 with two doubles, a home run, five walks, three RBIs, and five runs scored. Getting production like that from a leadoff hitter always results in a potent offense.
Most importantly, however, is that the Scarlet Knights have finally finished their brutal road stretch. Despite having 21 of their first 22 games on the road, Rutgers stands tall at 16-6. The majority of their remaining schedule will be in Piscataway, and with the team establishing themselves as a legitimate force in the Big Ten, Bainton Field should be rocking.
Next Up for Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights finally return to Piscataway to play NJIT. The first pitch is on Tuesday at 3:00 PM.