Culture established, Rutgers looks to change the conversation

He gets it. He may disagree, it may provide an edge and down right pisses him off, but he gets it.

To Joe Litterio, entering his sixth season leading the Rutgers baseball program, preseason predictions pegging the Scarlet Knights to the bottom of the Big Ten is something he understands.

“We have to win, you can’t blame them,” Litterio said of D1Baseball.com and Perfect Game respectively projecting the Scarlet Knights to finish next-to-last and last in the Big Ten. “We have to get our butts to the tournament. That’s the bottom line.”

As is their nature, preseason predication are often predicated on what has occurred. Predicting the future is tough enough as is, before adding the variable of 18-23-year-olds maturing, both mentally and physically, at various points. What has been is a safe way to assume what is to come.

And for the Scarlet Knights what has been hasn’t been much.

Since the 2015 season, Rutgers’ first as a Big Ten member, the Scarlet Knights are 30-59 in conference play, with respective final placings of 11th, 11th, 12th and 11th. Absent from NCAA Tournament play since 2007 and void of a winning record since 2014, past results have fostered little external expectation.

But as the 2019 season is less than two weeks away, to Litterio, what has been and what is history, will remain history;  relegated to record books, scorecards and web archives. Now is the time for Rutgers, look, think and step forward.

Before the Polar Vortex of 2019 engulfed and froze the Midwest and East Coast during the last week January, Rutgers was able to take to Bainton Field and scrimmage on Sunday, afforded a luxury of having intra-squad competition during the first weekend of team spring practice. The enjoying of being back on the field was short-lived. With the players having fielding woes and making more errors than acceptable, Litterio didn’t hold back his displeasure at practice’s end.

“One of my conversations was about what’s this inferior attitude that we have,” said Litterio, 120-142-1 through five seasons at Rutgers. “Rutgers was a top-of-the-league program, it had always been that. Then, we go into the Big Ten and, I think, when you’re an underdog all of the time, you start to think you’re an underdog. And I think that’s something we have to shed.”

The foundation to shedding that mentality started last year. Working with two new assistants, Phil Cundari, previously the pitching coach at Seton Hall, and Jim Duffy, stepping away from his role as the head coach at Manhattan, along with a newly introduced Director of Player Development, Peter Barron, Litterio and alongside a retooled staff worked hard to change the mindset of the players and the program’s overall culture, in hopes to restoring the past glory which saw Rutgers appear in six NCAA Tournaments between 1998-2007.

And for the first eight weeks the results were promising. After an April 11, 4-2 win over Lafayette, Rutgers was 18-11 on the season, and had four victories in six Big Ten games. Entering the ninth weekend of the season, Rutgers had already claimed weekend series against Old Dominion, Army, Florida Gulf Coast, LaSalle, Penn State and Michigan State. With six weekend wins, already the team doubled the number of weekend series captured in 2017.

It appeared the Scarlet Knights were on their way to reaching the Big Ten Tournament for the first time in program history. But the midweek win over Lafayette was followed by a weekend sweep at the hands of Illinois. Rutgers did rebound to claim four of their next five contests, including a weekend victory over Nebraska, but from April 27 through the end of the season, a 3-10 showing, including 1-10 in the Big Ten, saw RU conclude another year without postseason participation.

Finishing Big Ten play at 7-16, the third time in four springs RU has finished with exactly seven wins, it would be easy to chalk the 2018 season as another season that’s expected to come to pass for Rutgers. But at 25-25, Rutgers did not have a losing campaign. Under Cundari’s guidance, Rutgers pitched to a 4.82 ERA, a full run lower than 2017’s 6.11 mark. The team’s fielding percentage improved from .952 to .969. Offensively, a .270 team batting average was squarely in the middle of the Big Ten at seventh, ahead of Illinois and Iowa, both NCAA Tournament bubble teams.

And to Literrio what occurred off the field may was immeasurable and worth more than any win or can be defined by a statistical improvement.

“My staff was all brand new last year, we made improvements in a lot of categories and stats, but just changing the whole culture of the program, that was one of the major things last year we sought to do and we were able to accomplish that,” Litterio said. “Last year was about how are we going about doing all of this as a staff, how are going to implement it and see how the guys take to it. Now going in, it’s old hat now. The kids know what to expect.”

In addition to players knowing what to expect, having a greater sense of accountability and a deeper report with coaches, there is talent throughout Rutgers’ roster. From seniors like third baseman Carmen Sclafani and right-handed pitcher Serafino Brito, players in their last go who want to taste the postseason for the first time, along with players like left-handed pitcher Harry Rutkowski and outfielder Mike Nyisztor, two sophomores who showed provided key production as freshmen, down to newcomers in first baseman Chris Brito, right-handed pitcher Garrett French, catcher Peter Serruto and shortstop David Soto, four players of arguably the best recruiting class Rutgers has had in a decade, Rutgers is expected to field its most talented team as a Big Ten member. Litterio says the depth on the mound has doubled from last year, and there are guys in numbers they can run out. The potential is there for Rutgers to make noise and turn heads.

But potential is just a prospect of opportunities, what might come, nothing is promised nor guaranteed. And potential cannot mend the perception of the Scarlet Knights. Only what does come over the next three months will ultimately change the conversation and force the Scarlet Knights to garner greater respect.

“Our recruiting is better, our younger guys are good, and we’re gonna be good…We’re on our way. But I don’t blame anybody else for the predictions, we have to win baseball games and get to the tournament, make some noise there and it’ll all cure.”

Season Preview: Rutgers

Set to embark on a fifth season in the Big Ten, Rutgers is still in search of its first Big Ten Tournament appearance. Before fizzling out, 2018 showed promise and ultimately the Scarlet Knights finished 25-25. There are a handful of three or four-year starters no longer with the program, but as Rutgers continues to recruit better and better, last year saw freshman step into the spotlight and deliver, and more of the same is expected from a highly touted recruiting class. With 15 players having freshman eligibility it will be critical that rookies play behind their age. External expectations are low, but the internal culture is stronger. Now, will potential turn into production and club reaches its first Big Ten Tournament?

Program facts

Head coach: Joe Litterio, sixth season, 120-142-1 at Rutgers.

Last conference championship: 2007 (Big East)

Last NCAA Tournament: 2007 Charlottesville Regional

2018 in review

Record: 25-25 overall, 7-16 in Big Ten; 11th place

At the plate: .270 AVG, .356 OBP, .358 SLG, 66 2B, 15 3B, 18 HR, 82-104 SB-ATT

On the mound: 4.82 ERA, 435.1 IP, 226 BB, 333 SO, .272 BAA

In the field: .969 FLD, 50 double plays, 14 passed balls, 61 SBA, 19 CS

 

Roster rundown

Key losses: 1B Chris Folinusz (.284 AVG/.313 OBP/.398 SLG), OF Jawuan Harris (.246/.375/.387, 22 SB), Eric Heatter (1-2 W-L, 4.40 ERA, 30.2 IP) C Nick Matera (.254/.346/.409, 13 2B) RHP John O’Reilly (5-4, 5.32, 86.1) DH Kyle Walker (.286/.407/.384)

Key returners: Sr. OF Luke Bowerbank (.303/.363/.313), Sr. RHP Serafino Brito (1-2, 3.57, 45.1), Soph. SS Dan DeGeorgio (.277/.338/.362, 17 SB), Jr. RHP Kyle Gerace (1-0, 3.60, 30.0), Soph. OF Mike Nyisztor (.249/.326/.291, 11 SB), Soph. LHP Harry Rutkowski (4-6, 5.34, 64.0), Sr. 3B Carmen Sclafani (.287/.385/.427) Jr. 2B Kevin Welsh (.243/.332/.289)

Key newcomers: 1B Chris Brito, LHP Garrett French, C Peter Serruto, SS David Soto, RHP Victor Valderrama

Composition by class (eligibility-wise): Freshman (15), Sophomores (7), Juniors (9), Seniors (4)

 

What to expect in 2019

Taken as a whole, the 2018 season was a step in the right direction for Rutgers. At 25-25, the Scarlet Knights enjoyed their first non-losing season since 2014, spurred by the team’s ERA was its lowest since 2014’s 30-25 season. The club picked up seven weekend wins, including at a ranked Florida Gulf Coast and took two of three against the defending Big Ten champions, Nebraska. But more importantly, Litterio like the way his new staff came together and worked to change the culture in the program. But a 1-10 finish in conference play saw Rutgers finish with seven Big Ten wins for the third time in four years and miss the conference tournament yet again.

Through the ups and downs, several underclassmen saw significant time and a handful of juniors experienced breakout seasons. Those performances have created a foundation for Rutgers to build around. A highly touted, deep freshman class will see even more young blood immersed throughout the diamond. There are questions marks, but there is potential. The 2019 Rutgers outfit figures to be its deepest yet in the Big Ten. Now, will it be enough to participate in the Big Ten Tournament? That figures to be one of the more interesting storylines to follow in the Big Ten this season.

At the plate and in the field

Around the horn, Rutgers returns three of four starters, though they will be without one returning starter for most, if not all, of the season. Expected to lead the offense, senior third baseman Carmen Scalfani should be an all-conference candidate after a strong 2018, where he collected 12 extra-base hits and carried a .812 OPS. Scalfani will be asked to lead the way on the left side of the infield, as All-Big Ten Freshman Team selection, shortstop Dan DeGeorgio suffered an ACL tear during the first week of fall practices. DeGeorgio brought a strong all-around game to Litterio’s club last year, showing a little pop, a good feel for hitting and a lot of pop. As he recovers, there is a chance he returns during the second-half of the season, freshman David Soto will be called on at short. Soto’s double play partner will be junior Kevin Welsh. For two years Welsh has flashed promise, he has 50 walks and 50 strikeouts in two years, with Litterio and staff having the belief he can have a breakout year, not unlike Scalfani last year. At first base will be the second freshman in the diamond, Chris Brito. Litterio believes Brito, listed at 6’2, 215, has the physicality that’s needed to compete in the Big Ten. This is important as Rutgers’ 18 home runs were last in the Big Ten and the team’s isolated slugging (slugging minus average) of .88, was only better than Michigan State’s .82.

One of the Big Ten’s premier recruits will suit up for Rutgers and set up shop behind the plate. Freshman catcher Peter Serruto heads into the season with high expectations after the Cincinnati Reds selected the Short Hills, N.J. in the 22nd round of last June’s MLB Draft. His father a college baseball player at Virginia, Serruto has been around sports his entire life and Litterio says it’s easy to see with the presence and way he carries himself. Litterio says it’s a lot to ask of a freshman, but Serruto has the arm and defensive ability to control the running game. Able to spill Serruto or help give the Scarlet Knights versatility, senior catcher Tyler McNamara is available. McNamara made 14 starts last year and batted .260 over 50 at-bats.

In the outfield, familiar faces will roam. Though Rutgers must replace the speed and dynamic ability of Jawuan Harris, Kevin Blum, Luke Bowerbank and Mike Nyisztor all return, three outfielders who made a combined 109 starts last year. In limited time, Blum batted .310, Bowerbank struck out only 11 times in 152 at-bats, and as a freshman Nyisztor logged 219 plate appearances.

There is experience in the field and at the plate for Rutgers, as well as some key positions being filled by freshman. There should be enough throughout the lineup to keep opposing staff’s honest, and enough veterans with skill in the field for the defense to not be a liability. Crucial to sustain success will be developing a bit of power. Of Rutgers’ 18 home runs in 2018, only four return, three from Scalfani and one from DeGeorgio. The need to develop power is especially critical as DeGeorgio and Harris combined for 39 stolen bases, their absences figuring to hamper Rutgers’ ability to generate offense through speed.

On the mound

A big hole resides in the Rutgers rotation with the graduation of John O’Reilly. After making 14 starts and logging 86.1 innings, O’Reilly left the Rutgers program ranked second in starts (49), fourth in innings (300.2) and seventh in strikeouts (174). Starting every series opener, O’Reilly was the definition of a workhorse. Where O’Reilly’s production as a starter is lost, the potential of his replacement is near equally high. After shining in a relief role, Rutgers’ go-to closer, senior right-handed pitcher Serafino Brito is making a return to the rotation. Brito logged 45.1 innings over 26 appearances in 2018, pitching to a 3.57 ERA. With 41 strikeouts to 14 walks, Brito recorded five saves and held opponents to a .235 average. All of Brito’s 13 appearances were starts in 2017, as he logged a 4.84 ERA over 74.1. If at worst Brito splits the difference, Rutgers will have a viable Friday starter. Of course Litterio thinks he can do more than just split the difference.

After Brito, sophomore southpaw Harry Rutkowski looks to build off of a promising debut season. Rutkowski was right there with O’Reilly, pitching to a 5.34 ERA whereas the senior held a 5.32 mark. Rutowski was a weekend staple, all 13 of his appearances were starts as he pitched 64 innings. With a bulldog mentality, Rutkowski possesses enough swing-and-miss stuff to take a step forward. Like Serruto, he was a draft pick by the Reds out of high school, tabbed in the 28th round, where much is expected as his career progresses.

For the third spot in the rotation, another reliever is going to be tabbed to start the season stretched out. Junior Tevin Murray, a 6’6 left-handed pitcher from Rington, Penn., will look to carry the momentum started in the summer in the Alaskan League and carried into the fall. With an arm Litterio calls electric, Murray went to the Alaskan League and struck out 46 over 33.2 innings. That followed a spring season for the Scarlet Knights where Murray punched out 21 in 17.2 innings, but also walked 17.

Litterio sees three freshman that can contribute significant innings on the mound in lefty Jared Bellissimo and righties Garrett French and Victor Valderrama, the latter a potential replacement for Brito at the back of the bullpen. The trio of rookies will be able to look upon a few proven veteran relievers as Rutgers has junior right-handers Tommy Genuario and Kyle Gerace back. The two respectively held 3.20 and 3.60 ERAs, and combined to strike out 60 batters in 69.1 innings. Lefty Eric Reardon is another experienced arm capable of coming in during a key situation.

The pitching staff isn’t too different from the position players. There are some unknowns, some players with promise and potential, and players like Brito and Rutkowski you’re confident in that can form a strong foundation. But there are key holes to fill. Does Brito become that ace? Can freshmen be the third and midweek options? Of course last year’s Big Ten champion relied heavily on freshmen to fill out the rotation and at the back of the rotation, so it’s not impossible and that may inspire the Scarlet Knight staff. Litterio believes the depth of quality relievers has doubled from last year, saying “there’s a slew of guys that can help us out,” and feels confident going into the year with this collection of pitchers.

Five things to watch

  • Brito’s ability to go from stopper to ace
  • Rutkowski building off of 2018
  • The team’s ability to hit the longball
  • If Welsh can step up and be a strong two-way play
  • Serruto’s charge at Big Ten Freshman of the Year

 

One the weekend to circle

April 26-28, vs. Michigan. It may seem obvious to pick the weekend against national media’s expected Big Ten favorite and a team ranked in preseason polls, but the series against the Wolverines is big for other less obvious reasons. The series in Ann Arbor will be Rutgers fifth of eight Big Ten series, it figures to be one that shapes the final three and goes a long way in determining if the Scarlet Knights end up in Omaha. It’ll pit them against the team that cemented their 2018 fate, Rutgers grabbed the series opener last year, before falling 9-4 and 6-1 to start an end-of-season seven-game Big Ten losing streak. It’ll pit a team filled with promising freshman, in Rutgers, against a team that has seen significant contributions over the last few years from freshmen, in Michigan. And of course, if Michigan’s season plays out as many expect, it’ll give Rutgers a chance to grab a road victory against a ranked team. That type of result can change the course of a season, a season pretty critical to the growth of the program.

Midweek wrap

Settling into mid-March, the Big Ten has reached the part of the college baseball season with midweek games litter the calendar. For those in the Midwest, cold and wintery weather across Big Ten country cancelled games in Champaign and Iowa City, but for teams on spring break, taking to parts south and west there was action to be found.

Buckeyes take two in Port Charlotte

The second of two pre-Big Ten trips to Florida, Ohio State returns to Columbus riding a three-game winning streak after winning a pair of midweek games in Port Charlotte.

On Tuesday, Ohio State topped Lehigh, 7-3. The Buckeyes wasted little time scoring, crossing home twice in the opening inning, with senior DH Zach Ratcliff providing a big hit with an RBI-double. Lehigh responded with a run in their at-bat, but the Buckeye bats weren’t done, matching Lehigh with a run of their own in the bottom of the second.

OSU plated another run in the third, to take a 4-1 lead, but Lehigh cut the deficit to one run with two runs in their fourth-inning at-bat. But, again, Ohio State answered the bell. Junior center fielder Tre’ Gantt connected on his second home run of the season and Ratcliff added a sacrifice fly to give the Buckeyes breathing room and a 6-3 lead, OSU added an insurance run in the seventh to close the scoring.

Leading the team’s 12-hit attack, second baseman Noah McGowan, first baseman Bo Coolen and right fielder Dominic Canzone each picked up two hits in four at-bats. Left fielder Tyler Cowles matcher Ratcliff with two RBI. After freshman right-handed pitcher Jake Vance pitched 3.2 innings in hist first career start, Austin Woodby, Joe Stoll and Curtiss Irving combined to pitch 5.1 innings of three-hit, scoreless relief, striking out seven batters without issuing a walk.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Buckeyes reached .500 on the year, turning back the Bucknell Bison, 5-2, to even their record at 8-8.

The game was scoreless at its mid-point before the Buckeyes broke through with a two-run bottom of the fifth. With two outs, sophomore catcher Jacob Barnwell singled through the left side and moved up 90 feet when Gantt reached on an infield single up the middle. Senior shortstop Jalen Washington provided Ohio State with the game’s first lead, driving an opposite-field double down the right field line scoring Barnwell and Gantt. An unearned run in the bottom of the sixth provided the Buckeyes with further cushion.

Sophomore left-handed pitcher Connor Curlis twirled a gem in his first career start. Curlis struck out eight batters in 5.1 innings of work, holding Bucknell to four hits and one walk. The Bison did strike for two runs in the top of the seventh, but Ohio State leveled the inning’s scoring with two runs of their own, with Gantt picking up a RBI-single then later scoring on a wild pitch.

Running his batting average to a team-best .345, Gantt led Ohio State with a 2-for-4 afternoon from his leadoff position, scoring a pair of runs. Sophomore third baseman Brady Cherry added two hits in four at-bats.

Terps fall to Tar Heels on the road

Maryland’s eight-game winning streak came to an end Tuesday night, falling at #13 North Carolina, 9-2.

Allowing two runs in the bottom of the first, sophomore Right-handed pitcher Hunter Parson was the victim of two unearned runs in the bottom of the second, before exiting after 1.2 innings of work. The two-inning production would be enough for the Atlantic Coast Conference club in the battle against its former conference peer. Maryland was kept off of the scoreboard save a two-RBI single in the third inning, off of the bat of sophomore second baseman Nick Dunn. Dunn’s hit, Maryland’s lone base hit on the evening, halved the Terrapin deficit, but an UNC four-spot in the fourth put the game away.  Tar Heel pitchers struck out 12 batters on the night, only once allowing a runner to second base after the third inning.

Elsewhere

Winning the final two games of a three-game set at North Florida, Rutgers was unable to carry its momentum as the team headed south. Taking on Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton on Tuesday, the Scarlet Knights were downed by the Owls, 14-2. FAU scored in five of their eight at-bats, crossing home 10 times between the fourth and sixth innings. Rutgers could only muster four hits off Florida Atlantic pitching, two coming from Mike Carter, whose on-base streak stretched to 18 games.

Minnesota was held to one run and three hits in a 7-1 loss to Cal, Tuesday evening. Returning to California, after opening the season in Orange County with a weather-shortened weekend at UC-Irvine, the Gophers were quickly on the board. Right fielder Alex Boxwell tripled to right center and scored one batter later on a sacrifice fly from Luke Pettersen. But Minnesota’s scoring ended two batters in. Cal scored three runs in the bottom of the third to take a lead they would not relinquish, striking Minnesota pitchers for 13 hits on the day.

Preseason unit ranks: Corner infielders and outfielders

Champions aren’t crowned on paper, the games are decided on the field. But such a reality doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to take from stats and rosters and try to determine who is the best before the season starts.

Putting aside new faces and players primed for a breakout, here’s a look at which teams look to be the strongest on the corners of the diamond and in the outfielder, based on who is coming back and has previously shown they have what it takes to compete at the Big Ten levels.

Corner infielders & DH

Minnesota

A potent offense led Minnesota to its first Big Ten championship and NCAA Tournament appearance since 2010. While graduation or the MLB Draft forced the departure of three of the top four hitters from a .322 batting team, the Gophers return two key players at the corners and a breakout candidate at DH. Junior third baseman Micah Coffey has Big Ten Player of the Year Potential, coming off of a sophomore campaign where he filled up Gopher stat sheets. Coffey batted .333 with 13 doubles, three triples and seven home runs, tying for the team-lead with 42 RBI. Defensively, Coffey committed only six errors in 154 chances, providing a solid glove at the hot corner. Across the diamond, classmate Toby Hanson looks to build off of a season where he batted .301 over 40 games, hitting five home runs. In the DH spot, sophomore Cole McDevitt put up big numbers in limited opportunities for the Big Ten champs. Appearing in 12 games, making four starts, McDevitt collected nine hits in 22 at-bats for a .409 average, two of which were home runs. The trio provides a power-packed core that John Anderson can build around.

Michigan

The Wolverines return every starter around the diamond, but the two on the corner will flip-flop position. A summer injury will force junior Jake Bivens to move from third base to first base, changing spots with classmate Drew Lugbauer. Regardless of where on the diamond the two suit up, opposing pitchers need to proceed with caution when facing both. Bivens, the 2015 Big Ten Freshman of the Year, has shown an ability to hit from his first day in Maize and Blue. Batting .319 as a freshman, Bivens bumped his average to .356 in 2016 and contributed 13 stolen bases in 19 attempts. Lugbauer saw a noteworthy increase in offensive production from year one to year two himself. After posting a line .211/.281/.300 in 2015, as a sophomore, Lugbauer’s respective batting average, on-base and slugging percentages made him a force in Michigan’s lineup. On the strength of 15 doubles, seven home runs and 30 walks, Lugbauer batted .294 with a .389 on-base percentage and .483 slugging clip.

Michigan State

Michigan State sophomore third baseman Marty Bechina did a bit of everything for the Spartans last year. A good athlete, Bechina moved to center field when injuries depleted the Michigan State outfield. Bechina also showed flashes of being an impact player at the plate. Starting out hot, Bechina carried a .326 average through March 31, before finishing his first season in East Lansing with a solid .260 average., with 11 doubles and two home runs. Back to his natural third base in 2017, Bechina will be depended upon to be a big bat for Jake Boss. At first base, sophomore Alex Troop will be in the infield, when not the Spartans’ Friday night ace. Troop batted .372 with six doubles in 2016, before a broken thumb ended his season in early March. Troops’ injury allowed Zack McGuire to step in and receive playing time, give MSU a quality option at first when Troop is on the mound, or at DH. McGuire batted .250 over 76 at-bats, dialing up seven doubles and a pair of home runs to help produce a .739 OPS as a sophomore.

Honorable Mention: Indiana

A draft-eligible sophomore, Baseball America has tabbed third baseman Luke Miller as one of the Big Ten’s top five prospects. Taking on a new position, a high school outfielder, Miller handled the hot corner well, while batting .284 with 11 doubles. At first base, senior Austin Cangelosi looks to rebound after a down campaign. Cangelosi batted .219 with six doubles and four home runs after carrying a .246 clip in 2015, with eight doubles, three triples and three home runs. IU has four capable outfielders in Craig Dedelow, Laren Eustace, Alex Krupa and Logan Sowers, with the odd man out likely being the DH.

 

Outfielders

Indiana

Four capable guys for three spots gives Indiana the Big Ten’s best outfield. Sowers, a junior, has as much power potential as any player in the conference. Sowers connected for eight home runs in 2016, while being limited to 44 games due to injury. Later in the year, Sowers battled a banged up shoulder, contributing to a season-ending average of .273, which was as high as .337 in late April. Sowers has a big arm and runs well, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound mulit-tooled athlete. Dedelow led IU in batting as a junior in 2016, finishing year three in Bloomington with a .302 average. Dedelow’s 16 doubles also paced the club, a part of 23 extra-base hits with two triples and five home runs. Dedelow and Sowers can be as good of an offensive 1-2 punch in the conference. Krupa and Eustace don’t have the power of their Hoosier teammates, but both have a glove that can play in any outfield, while being spark plugs to the offense. Krupa, a senior, batted .281 with 14 stolen bases as the IU center fielder, after transferring from Iowa Western. When seeing playing time, Eustace batted .248 with a .746 OPS, steal six bases over 40 games as a sophomore. Eustace had a big summer in the Northwoods League, batting .320 over 63 with the wood bat for the Green Bay Bullfrogs.

Nebraska

Nebraska is right there in touting the Big Ten’s top outfield. Junior Scott Schreiber has All-American potential, slugging a Big Ten-best 16 home runs and posting a 1.020 OPS will do that. Schreiber, a former high school quarterback, was Nebraska’s primary first baseman in 2016, but will slide to right field, with Nebraska expecting Schreiber’s athleticism able to handle the change. Schreiber’s .325 average was bested by junior center fielder Jake Meyer’s .326 mark. Meyers, Nebraska’s Sunday starting pitcher, showed a good blend of speed and pop, recording 12 doubles, six triples and two home runs, with 10 stolen bases. Spending a little time in the infield in 2016, junior Luis Alvarado is back to calling left field is home. Alvarado finished his sophomore season witha  .251 average over 53 games.

Rutgers

Rutgers outfield deep enough that senior Mike Carter can move to first base, after batting .367 over 28 games, without head coach Joe Litterio worrying about a production drop off from his outfield. All eyes will be on sophomore center fielder Jawuan Harris to see what the two-sport standout does in year two. After leading Rutgers football in receiving yards and touchdown receptions, no returning player in NCAA baseball stolen more bases than Harris last season. Leading the Big Ten with 37 swipes, batting .273, Harris providing an immediate impact for the Scarlet Knights. To Harris’ right, senior Tom Marcinczyk led Rutgers with a .446 slugging percentage in 2016, picking up 12 doubles with six triples and four home runs, batting .270, adding 18 stolen bases for good measure. Left field will be manned by sophomore Luke Bowerbank, who comes off a quality rookie season where he batted .301 in 34 games.

Honorable Mention: Minnesota

While sophomore center fielder Ben Mezzenga is primed for a breakout season, the two Gophers around him look to pick up where 2016 left off, when they experienced breakthrough seasons. Junior right fielder Alex Boxwell put together a nice .327/.379/.464 season as he stepped into an everyday role. Boxwell’s 10 doubles were matched by senior Jordan Smith, who carried a .296 average throughout his junior season, adding a pair of triples and three home runs.

10 series that will shape the season

The 2017 season is littered with big series, week after week in the Big Ten. Here is a look at 10 series which will shape the season.

Penn State at TCU, Feb. 17-19

Penn State has improved upon the previous season in each of Rob Cooper’s first three seasons in State College. The Nittany Lions finished the 2016 season with a 28-27 record, above .500 for the first time since 2012, going 12-12 in Big Ten play. Penn State finished in a tie for eighth in the conference, with Illinois and Iowa, but due to tiebreakers was on the outside of the Big Ten Tournament field. Penn State will have an opportunity right out of the gate to put to rest any lingering wishes of last season, opening the 2017 season at consensus #1 TCU. Penn State returns its entire weekend rotation from 2016 and the talent base and depth continues to build for the Nittany Lions. There is no greater opportunity to see how far the program than facing a program which has appeared in three consecutive College World Series. Penn State played TCU tough in a three-game set last year in State College, ultimately being swept. If Penn State can leave Fort Worth with a win, Coop’s crew may be in line for a breakout year.

Maryland at LSU, Feb. 24-26

Maryland’s series at LSU has been circled from the day the respective schedules were put out. Tabbed the Big Ten’s favorite by national media, Maryland’s mettle will be tested early. There is no environment in college baseball like LSU’s Alex Box Stadium, but this is a Maryland team used to unwelcoming settings. It wasn’t long ago the Terrapins were coming off of back-to-back super regional appearances, in fact, that was just last year. With across the board preseason rankings, expectations are again high for Maryland. The meeting with the Tigers will not provide an opportunity to build a strong RPI, but if Maryland performs as many expect, they could be in line for a regional host at year’s end, and an early season win on the road against a top 10 team would be quite the bullet on a resume. The series will also likely have the best pitching matchup of any game involving a Big Ten team this season when Terrapin Brian Shaffer toes the mound opposite LSU’s Alex Lange, both strong draft prospects, to kick the weekend off.

Rutgers at Virginia, Feb. 24-26

Rutgers opens the season at Miami, and 2016 College World Series participant, providing a tough opponent from the start. But it is Rutgers’ second weekend, still against a very good opponent, at Virginia that figures to be a better gauge on what’s in front of the Scarlet Knights in 2017. Joe Litterio’s team now calls the glistening Fred Hill Training Complex home, a fully turfed indoor infield, which allows Rutgers to do everything on a diamond indoor it seeks to do outside. This is quite critical in the preparation for the New Jersey program. Expected to be as game-ready as ever to enter the season, it’s still hard to duplicate the outdoor nature of baseball. With a weekend under their belt, how Rutgers battles Virginia, the 2015 national champions, should show if the team is on an upward trend. Can Rutgers pull the upset and leave Charlottesville with a weekend win? Even grabbing one win will show Rutgers will have a say in how the Big Ten table shakes out.

Michigan at Lipscomb, March 10-12

Michigan’s depth on the mound paired with a few questions in the gives the Wolverines an opportunity to bring the Big Ten championship, and a NCAA regional, to Ann Arbor for the first time since 2008. The Wolverines open March in the four-team Dodgertown Classic field alongside San Diego and hosts UCLA and USC, putting Michigan against top competition early in the season. But the following weekend is one to keep an eye on. In Nashville, Michigan will meet Lipscomb for a three-game series, its first weekend set against a team expected to reach the NCAA Tournament. Not only is Lipscomb viewed by national media as regional-bound, in some corners they’re seen as a College World Series darkhorse. Led by preseason All-American outfielder Michael Gigliotti, Lipscomb swept preseason Atlantic Sun coaches honors. Tabbed as conference favorites, Gigliotti is the ASUN Preseason Player and Defensive Player of the Year, while Brady Puckett earned Preseason Pitcher of the Year.

Michigan State at South Carolina, March 10-12

Michigan State broke a 33-year NCAA Tournament drought in 2012, a year after being conference co-champions with Illinois. For six seasons now, Jake Boss’ team has been a club in the mix for conference championships and NCAA Tournament berths. Unfortunately, Michigan State has yet to duplicate either feat, painstakingly being the first team left out of the 2013 NCAA Tournament and one of the first four out in 2015. But every year, Michigan State attempts to put itself a position to be considered for a tournament berth, seeking out tough competition away from home. From Texas A&M to UCLA and Oregon, there is no place MSU won’t go. This year, they take on Southeastern Conference power South Carolina. Like their in-state rivals in Ann Arbor, the team in East Lansing has a roster strong enough to bring a NCAA Regional to town. Grabbing a road win in Columbia will give MSU the credibility it needs to show they are for real, to get over the hump and return to the NCAA Tournament.

Minnesota at Ohio State, March 24-26

The pre-conference slate is filled with big series from coast to coast, putting teams in position to have a big 2017. The Big Ten season kicks off pitting two teams against each other, looking to continue what was started in 2016. The reigning Big Ten Tournament champions welcome the reigning conference champions for a banner series out of the gate. Due to conference expansion and schedule quarks, Ohio State has not played host to Minnesota since 2012. Two tradition-ladened clubs, it’s mind-blogging five years could pass between the Gophers last trip to Columbus. On paper, both teams lost a lot from 2016 regional clubs, for Minnesota, the Big Ten Player of the Year Matt Fiedler is now in the pro ranks, the same for Ohio State’s Ronnie Dawson, the Big Ten Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. But enough parts return where a run at another conference crown should not be unexpected, nor a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. Which team can start conference play on the right note will get a shot in the arm in turning a one-year rise into sustain success.

Maryland at Nebraska, April 7-9

In each of the last three seasons, the Big Ten has yet to see the top two finishers square off in a weekend series. The 2016 season ended in high drama with Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska and Ohio State all with a shot at the conference title, with the four teams squaring off in two series, but the season ended with Minnesota at the top, Nebraska second, one half-game separating the two with a game played between them. Illinois’ historic 21-1 season came without playing second-place Iowa. The 2014 Big Ten Tournament championship game was a sensational spectacle, in part because Indiana and Nebraska, two ranked teams did not play in the regular season. Will this finally end? On the accord on national media, Nebraska is right there with Maryland as the team to beat in the Big Ten. An early April weekend sees the two square off, and it should be a dandy. Maryland’s dynamic pitching duo of Shaffer and Taylor Bloom will go against Nebraska’s big boopers in Scott Schreiber and Ben Miller. Both clubs have talent and experience, both are led by hard-nosed, no-nonsense coaches. With Hawks Field capable of filling up with thousands upon thousands, this will be a must-see series.

Xavier at Indiana, May 5-7

It’s a sneaky good non-conference series, quite the pickup for Indiana in its bye week. And the Hoosier didn’t have to look far for its opponent. While a mid-major, Xavier has a very capable team in 2017, should not be overlooked for a lack of power conference stature. The Musketeers, who may be home to the best pitching prospect in the Midwest in Zac Lowther, are the Big East preseason favorites return several capable players, from its Nashville Regional runners-up team. The Hoosiers will be the third Big Ten team Xavier faces in a weekend series, following Penn State and Ohio State, and, while the results do no count, have left Bloomington with an exhibition victory in each of the last two Autumns. Indiana returns its entire lineup and by May, the completely new rotation should have settled in. Looking to appear in the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in five years, May will be a big month for the Hoosiers hopes, starting with this series against the Queen City club.

Long Beach State at Minnesota, May 12-14

Minnesota will open the season at the Big West’s UC Irvine and will conclude it’s out-of-conference slate by welcoming the Big West’s Long Beach State to Minneapolis in May. Long Beach State enters the season with a national ranking, looking primed to build on its program’s storied history. Minnesota is absent a preseason ranking, but they’ll be looking to do the same, shooting for a Big Ten-best 31st NCAA Tournament appearance. By mid-May, RPI fluctuations will have calmed, teams will have a dozen weekends of showing who they are and what they’re capable of. For Minnesota to have a quality opponent come to town this late in the season is a boon. The Gophers will have the ability to make a final statement on the national landscape and potentially propel itself to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament, for the first time since 2004.

Michigan vs. Michigan State, May 18-20

Oh, what a dandy this could be. When Michigan and Michigan State meet, the two come together for a split-site series, alternating between two home games around one road contest, year after year. Last year, when the teams met in the final weekend of April, more than 7,000 fans came out to watch the rivals square off. That was with overcast skies twice in Ann Arbor and on a gray Saturday in East Lansing, the temperature resting in the upper 40s throughout the weekend. What could the turnout be if the two face off the final weekend of the season, with temperatures climbing into the 70s, as two teams stocked with pitchers and capable bats do battle? The imagination runs wild, what a way to end the season.

 

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